Why we need to rethink the concept of work

With so many women now in the workplace and feminism’s early victories (it’s been over a century since women were first given the vote, more than half a century since the advent of the Pill, and there’s at least 50% female graduation in today’s university courses), you’d think that old glass ceiling would be badly wobbling by now.

But no, women are still not receiving equal pay for an equal day’s work, and there’s only a measly 6.4% female chief executives in the Fortune 500 companies in the US. In Australia, the comparatively low percentage of women on company boards speaks for itself

In 2013, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg famously recommended the necessity of women “leaning in” to seek promotion and pay rises, but the problem is definitely more complex than the importance of asserting oneself. (Some don’t care for leaning in at all, arguing that it merely results in energiser bunnies with low quality of life).

Irrespective of where one stands on this topic, we, women and men, need to rethink the concept of work in our lives.  It’s about:


Without income, we cannot house ourselves and our families. Most societies’ division of labour (roles) around the world evolved through “traditional” lines. In early history, women foraged for food, bore and raised children, while men hunted, monopolised ceremonies and squabbled about power. (Women also hunted and held titular positions, but in comparatively fewer numbers). With growing gaps between the wealthy and the poor, the Industrial Revolution paved the way for more paid jobs for women and an evolving middle class in many countries. Men, however, controlled the decision-making in parliaments and by rule of law, despite women’s increasing access to education — a state of play which lasted into the first half of the 20th century.

We can summarise from this that institutional, societal and governance arrangements have lagged women’s progress, so much so that women still aren’t running companies (though they’re increasingly heading governments). The bottom line? Maintain self-belief, advocacy and support for equal pay for an equal day’s work. Individuals, as well as those holding positions of power and responsibility, need to demonstrate their commitment to this goal and be prepared to push for improved conditions and promotion prospects.

Self-worth and development

The majority of us also work because it enhances our mental and emotional development. Education systems are not just tasked with fitting people to jobs; done well, schools and universities can foster a lifetime’s interest in learning and cultivate talents of all varieties. Enjoying what we do, showcasing the myriad benefits the sexes, different cultures, abilities and generations can bring to a workplace, all contribute to a life worth leading.

It’s worth realising that it’s less the job titles or redundant notions of hierarchy that matter, it’s creating a space where people feel prepared, even happy, to share what they know.

Collaboration towards broader goals 

Workplaces that harbour antiquated ideas about gender and division of responsibilities might be superficially successful, but impoverished in every other way. Hidden Figures showcased NASA’s mid-century discrimination against talented female mathematicians employed to work on the space race.

Lots of us “get” the importance of collaboration, but an individual’s team-playing skills are badly compromised when employers refuse to put substance behind their rhetoric. Katherine Johnson, who helped calculate astronaut John Glenn’s successful 1962 orbit around the earth, remembers being firm about her name going on a report that she’d largely researched, after years of back-room computer (“women’s”) work. Glenn especially wanted Johnson to make the calculations, because of her skill and accuracy. Valuing and recognising contributions, as Johnson (who will turn 100 this year) said, is a major building block in improving work conditions for all.

Enabling economies to progress while not losing sight of the fact that life is for living (as much as possible) 

So much is happening in our working lives, between companies, industry sectors, world economies and the demands of an increasingly globalised workforce. There will be powerful forces, many outside our control, as to where and how we earn a living in the years to come.

Not everyone is enamoured of the gig economy’s “freedoms”. Working long hours for minimal pay is a recipe for poverty, with the potential to increase criminal behaviours, born of desperation. It’s useful to remember how the eight hour-day campaign started, especially in Australia. Again, this calls for widespread and structural recognition of people’s intrinsic as well as economic worth

Anyone who’s experienced difficulties with the above tends to have a finely honed sense of needing to move things forward. Whether it’s “leaning in” or unsung heavy lifting, people benefit when they realise their interdependence and assume both individual and collective responsibility.

NOW READ: Research reveals how women in business profit from stronger networks


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