This Arthur Meme Reveals How Women's Work Is Undervalued

October 3rd 2016

The latest version of the "Arthur fist" meme, gained traction on social media for its revealing message about women's work.

The original meme, which became popular this summer, has been used as a way to express frustration about any topic. In her "feminist" take, artist Hannah Hill focuses on how embroidery has not been taken seriously as an art form, because it has primarily been done by women.

While most women probably don't embroider themselves, the meme speaks to the larger issue that women-dominated fields of work have historically been undervalued, either in its significance or in monetary compensation. 

For example, domestic labor, ranging from child care to elder care, is mostly done by immigrant women, and as a result, it is largely invisible, underpaid, and unregulated.

“Domestic work makes all other work possible,” Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said in a statement to the United Nations. According to a recent U.N. Women's Progress of Women report, 53 million domestic workers, over 80 percent of them women, are employed globally. "Their work helps economies grow, advances the participation of women in the workplace and provides crucial care for millions of dependents," notes the report.

While the labor of caregivers is crucial to the American economy, a 2012 survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found the following mistreatment of these workers:

  • "Nearly two-thirds (65%) of domestic workers do not have health insurance, and only 4 percent receive employer-provided insurance."
  • "Most workers (82%) are not granted paid sick leave, and given their low wages, even one day without work can severely limit their ability to meet their financial obligation."
  • "Less than 2 percent receive retirement or pension benefits from their primary employer."

The devaluation of paid domestic labor is rooted in the way unpaid household labor and the labor of care are not even considered work at all, because it is done by women and in the domestic sphere.

Whether it's sweeping or changing diapers, the division of domestic chores skews toward women — even those with full-time jobs — performing most of them. In a Working Mother Research Institute survey of more than 1,000 working people in relationships, "79 percent of moms with kids under age 18 at home say they’re primarily responsible for laundry, compared with 22 percent of dads," and "more than half (57 percent) of moms say they are in charge of cooking dinner, compared with 26 percent of dads."

On the negative consequences of housework's economic invisibility, law professor Noah Zatz wrote in a New York Times opinion piece: "Unlike the low-wage worker, the 'housewife' gets no credit for contributing to the household economy. That means no protection against future disability, unemployment or retirement via Social Security or related social insurance programs. Her labor also gets ignored by tax credits and other policies that support 'working families' who struggle to make ends meet."

Additionally, jobs perceived as "feminine" or "women's work" do not pay as well as those that aren't categorized that way.

Take teaching, for example. It's no coincidence pay in the female-dominated field has decreased by nearly 20 percent compared with that of workers with a similar level of training and education, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute. Ilana Teitelman, a teacher and education consultant, wrote about the history of teaching and the value of "women's work" for The Toast:

"[Historically] women were seen as born nurturers, naturally inclined to keep their students and the good of the school as their first priority. Therein lies the crux of the issue: the fact that women are expected to do this job out of love or biology. The work is seen as 'fulfilling' for us; satisfaction the only reward we should need...But it should never be viewed as selfish or unacceptable for professionals to advocate for better working conditions and fair pay for themselves."

Even when women enter fields that were previously male-dominated, their pay drops. One of the most comprehensive studies of feminization of work and pay, using U.S. census data from 1950 to 2000, strongly suggests employers placed a lower value on work done by women, resulting in lower pay. Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University and co-author of the report, told The Times, "It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance...It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less."

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