Women’s work has always been an afterthought in cities
The pandemic has finally revealed the cracks in our care networks
The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped back the curtain that covers the true engine of the global economy: the undervalued, feminized care labour that keeps society functioning through its often invisible and almost always underpaid exertions. The simultaneous collapse of the systems that keep this work hidden and the exponential increase in the need for this work has also revealed that our cities have never been designed to make caring work easy. In fact, “women’s work” has always been an afterthought in cities. Now that everything we’ve taken for granted about how our cities function has been left in ribbons, will the gaping holes in our care network continue to be ignored?
For far too long, the smooth running of the economy has relied precariously on the zombie of outdated gender roles grafted onto the reality of the modern working woman. In the realm of unpaid work, women perform the vast majority of global labour that keeps children alive and growing, workers fed, homes clean, sick people tended to, food grown, and volunteer work staffed. The value of this work is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars. “Estimated” because it is uncounted, intentionally excluded from the GDP, and not considered part of the “economy” by international definitions.
Much of this work is done by women who also have one or more (under)paid jobs, jobs that we suddenly see as valuable: nurses and cleaners, grocery store clerks and personal care workers, food service workers, and childcare providers, to name a few. Women’s work has gone from hidden and disposable to heroic and essential, seemingly overnight.
COVID-19 has forced us to dramatically rearrange our lives, both socially and spatially. Not only has this exposed the shaky foundations of a system that rests on women’s continued willingness to do so much undervalued work, but it’s also highlighted the cracks in our cities when it comes to care. Cities have been designed to facilitate the needs of the traditional male breadwinner, the man who commutes from a residential zone to work in a manufacturing or white-collar zone of the city. The separation between home and work is largely unproblematic; after all, these are separate spheres of life, right? Not so for women, and especially not for single mothers, poor women, and those with multiple caring responsibilities.
Decades of research have shown that women’s commutes are longer and more complex than men’s, as women have less access to private transportation, run multiple errands during commutes, and are primarily responsible for children’s journeys as well. Women pay more to commute as this complexity often means more spending on extra transit trips or taxis. The prohibitive cost of housing in central neighbourhoods means that workers in these essential roles are commuting farther. Somehow, women juggle more than fifty percent of child and domestic labour in the home, along with elder care, community work, relationship building, and their paid work across urban networks that refuse to cut them any slack.
The pandemic puts these longstanding issues into sharp relief. Low-paid cleaners are compelled to ride still-crowded subways and buses from far-flung neighbourhoods. Single mothers are forced to choose between doing their essential paid work and their essential unpaid work. Women working from home are facing heightened risks of domestic violence with nowhere to go. Those who work multiple jobs (women are more likely to be employed casually or part-time) may be prohibited from entering multiple workplaces (e.g. care homes), leaving not only a gap in their income but in the care work that desperately needs to be done for many vulnerable citizens. The serious limitations on the kind of volunteer and charity activities largely undertaken by women to feed, clothe, and sustain homeless, disabled, elderly, and marginalized groups have also left giant rips in the social fabric of care.
Our overreliance on women’s work has never been adequately supported by investments in the kinds of infrastructures and social programs that make this work possible. Everything from robust public transit to affordable housing to a living wage to childcare to walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods to quality elder care to social programs funded by the state rather than charity has been seen as luxuries that cities can’t afford. After all, women have always been there, by choice or by compulsion, to fill those needs.
While the curtain that hides the true contribution of women’s work lies in shreds for the moment, the critical question is whether it will be hastily re-hung as the crisis abates. Will care work be forced back into obscurity, or will we work to re-organize our cities in ways that support, value, and redistribute care work more equitably and sustainably for everyone?