The gender division of labour describes a system in which women tend to do the majority of unpaid labour in the home, whereas men tend to work in paid labour outside of the home.  Liberal, Marxist, and Socialist feminists each approach the gender division of labour differently.  This lesson explores how these distinct theoretical feminist approaches each approach the issues of the gender division of labour between paid and unpaid work. 

Feminist Theories on the Gender Division of Labour
Listening Time: 5:14 Minutes

Note: the audio for this lecture cuts off at 5:14. I will re-record the audio as soon as possible. Please refer to the transcript in the meantime. (Nov 15 2021).

The concept of the “double day” or “second shift” refers to the number of hours women tend to spend performing unpaid labour after their paid workday ends.  Statistics Canada reported that, in 2015, women spent 3.9 hours on unpaid work per day on average compared to 2.4 hours for men, a difference of 1.5 hours. When surveys factor in the time women spend multitasking — or doing unpaid labour simultaneously with another activity (ie. folding laundry while watching tv), this gap increased: women spent an average of 2.5 hours more per day on all unpaid work activities.  This kind of “care” work tends to fall to women because gender norms and expectations dictate that such nurturing work comes more ‘naturally’ to women. 

Dr. Marilyn Waring is a feminist economist who critiques the erasure of women’s unpaid labour from measures of a nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In the video below, Waring explains how the concept of GDP, which remains an important measure of global wealth and production, erases women’s labour by defining them as “nonprimary producers”. As you watch, think about labour you do that the state deems unproductive. Why do you think this kind of labour is erased from calculations of GDP? Which of the theories you’ve just learned about best help you formulate an answer to that question?

The Unpaid Work that GDP Ignores, Dr. Marilyn Waring
View Time: 17:08 Minutes


  • Women are less likely than men to be employed in the paid labour force. 
  • When employed in wage labour, women are more likely to work part-time.
  • Women in Canada spend 2.8 hours per day doing housework.  Men spend 1.9 hours per day doing housework.  This means that, on a weekly basis, women do up to 6.3 more hours of housework relative to men. 
  • The time women spend on housework per day is decreasing; in 1986 women spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on housework. By 2015 this had dropped to 2.8 hours per day.  
  • Women continue to spend more time than men caring for children or other dependents (ie. elderly parents or disabled folks).

Source: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-503-x/2015001/article/54931-eng.htm

BIG IDEA: Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism has been, since the 1970s, the predominant way of thinking about economics in Western liberal democracies like Canada, the United States, and England.  Neoliberalism has profound impacts for women, racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples, queer and trans folks, and disabled people.  In order to understand neoliberalism and why it matters, first we need to understand its corollary: social liberalism. 

The market collapse of the 1930s, known as the Great Depression, left citizens experiencing unemployment, poverty, and poor health.  The “invisible hand” approach, which held that the government should not intervene in the market, had failed.  Citizens, labour movements, and left-wing parties demanded more from their governments.  They understood that it was the government’s role to prevent widespread poverty, illness, and unemployment.  After decades of searching for solutions to the problems of unfettered capitalism, a new consensus emerged: social liberalism.  Social liberalism, sometimes called Keynesian economics after John Maynard Keyenes, was based on the principle that capitalism is an unstable and unpredictable system that does not provide for everyone’s basic needs equally.  Because people live and work in political and economic systems, individuals cannot be held responsible if the entire system fails.  Industrialized countries around the world introduced social programs and welfare policies, including healthcare, pensions, and unemployment programs.  

What did this mean for women?  Because women worked primarily in the home doing domestic labour, new post-war social liberal policies tended to conceive of women as men’s dependents. That is, the state conceived of men were the natural primary wage earners for their homes. This logic held that men should be paid a “family wage” — enough money to support their dependents.  The welfare state’s benefits were distributed to those who worked full time outside of the home.  This is a major limitation of social liberal policies for women.  Yet, at the same time, this new way of thinking about the state’s role created an opening for the women’s movement to argue that the state had a role to play in promoting the equality of women and men.  Women advocated for policies like: employment equity legislation, anti-discrimination legislation, day cares, funding for women’s shelters, and paid maternity leave. 

Neoliberalism emerged as the new orthodoxy in the 1970s after a period of economic crisis. A neoliberal approach is based on the logic that the state should let free markets prevail.   Neoliberal policies promote the privatization of state-run services, liberalization, and deregulation, so that entrepreneurs and businesses are free to pursue wealth without interference from the government.  A neoliberal approach to daycare, for example, states that daycares should be privately-owned and the principles of supply and demand will determine how much daycare costs.

Widespread evidence from around the globe shows that neoliberal policies that let the market decide who gets what consolidate power in the hands of the already rich.  For example, in Canada, neoliberal policies have increased income inequality. The Chartered Professional Accounts of Canada report that: 

Rising income inequality continues to be an economic, social and political concern both internationally and here in Canada. Inequality may have only risen modestly, on average, across the country, but economic forces continue to concentrate both income and wealth among Canada’s richest. This represents a serious concern for our country’s standard of living — high levels of inequality can be a substantial barrier to future economic growth.

In addition to deepening income inequality, neoliberalism as a set of policies and a way of thinking has particular consequences for women.  

Because neoliberalism presumes that every individual has an equal opportunity to become wealthy, those who demand equity, including women, LGBTQ people, disabled folks, and racialized minorities are labelled “special interests”.  Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was particularly intent on dismantling policies and departments aimed at promoting gender equality, cutting funding to the Status of Women Canada, and removing the word “equality” from its mandate.  The Government of Canada, under Harper, argued that “all women are equal”, despite evidence pointing to ongoing gender inequality.  Today, on the other hand, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proudly declares his feminism, but evidence suggest that his government’s policies appeal to women who are already privileged.  

Before we turn to Trudeau’s approach to gender equality, let’s examine the evidence of persisting gender inequality as it pertains to work:

  • Women in Canada earn less than men, despite their educational achievements (women now outnumber men in law schools, for example)
  • When studying annual earnings for both full time and part time workers, women earn 69 cents for every dollar men earn. 
  • When studying full-time work, women earned 75 cents per dollar earned by men.
  • Women tend to work fewer hours than men because of unpaid care labour responsibilities.
  • When Statistics Canada studied the wage gap based on the total number of hours worked in 2015, the wage gap narrowed to 87 cents per dollar earned by men. 
  • The gender wage gap widens for racialized and Indigenous women. 
  • When racialized women work full-time, they earn 67 cents for every dollar earned by white men. 
  • Indigenous women who work full-time earn 65 cents for every dollar earned by non-Indigenous men. 
  • Of 43 countries in the OECD, Canada has the 8th highest gender pay gap 

One of the reasons the wage gap persists is because work traditionally performed by women — especially care work — is undervalued relative to work traditionally performed by men.  For example, truck drivers, 97% of whom are men, earn, on average $45,417 per year.  Early childhood educators, 97% of whom are women, earn an average salary of $25,334.  Women tend to be concentrated in minimum wage and part-time jobs because of a lack of affordable child care options.  This suggests that, contrary to neoliberal dogma, the market does not provide equally for all citizens. 

The Trudeau government’s approach to feminist policy has been focused on encouraging women’s participation in the workforce. Yet, in the absence of a publicly-funded national childcare program, recommended by the RCSW in 1967, the government’s investment in childcare does not match its goals.  Trudeau extended parental leave by 6 months, allowing parents to take 18 months instead of 12.  Yet, the amount of funding remain the same, forcing parents to stretch their budgets across a longer period.  As Political Scientist Alexandra Dobrowolsky points out, Trudeau government’s approach to gender equality has been to encourage women to become entrepreneurs, though programs supporting “women-led businesses”.  Further, the Trudeau government changed the name of the Status of Women Canada to Women and Gender Equality (WAGE), reflecting its prioritization on market solutions for social problems (Dobrowolsky 2020).

Today, women tend to be concentrated in precarious jobs — jobs that are low-paying, insecure, and short-term, with no health benefits.  Fields like healthcare and postsecondary education, which used to provide long-term stable jobs, now offer workers short-term contracts with no benefits. Often, people work several part-time jobs to make enough to get by. Going from one short-term gig to another means that many people in “the precariat” do not qualify for social and welfare programs, like unemployment insurance. In Janine Brodie’s (2018) words: the precariat are “the embodiment of successive neoliberal policy failures and the incessant individualization of systemic injustices” (20).

It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 pandemic will usher in a return to social liberalism or a move towards an entirely new consensus. COVID-19 has forced governments around the world to acknowledge, once again, that the state must provide for citizens in times of hardship that are outside of their control. In its government’s September 2020 Speech from the Throne, Trudeau’s government announced that it would “make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early-learning and child-care system.” For families who spend between $500 and $1750 per month on childcare, depending on their city and province, this could mean that women are able to return to work.