Since When is Retail "Women's Work?"
In the WWII era, while the men were overseas, women surged into the American workforce. The war had created a decade’s worth of demand, and when all those job listings suddenly appeared in the classifieds, who was there to fill them? Women.
Then, when the soldiers returned, ready and willing to enter the civilian workforce, anxiety about unemployment took hold of America. Unemployment for men, of course. Where would all of these guys work?
The solution, some concluded, is shown in this video, in which a male speaker concludes: “You women and girls will go home, back to being housewives and mothers again, as you promised to do.” The message being sent to women was: Your job is done. Go home.
Fast forward 67 years. We’re in an economic recession, but, according to recent trends, we could be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Unemployment has dipped below 9% and holiday spending was up from 2010. And another sign of the recovery, according to an article in USA Today, is that after several years of being hired at a slower rate than women, men are now returning to work in greater numbers—in part because they’re taking jobs in the retail sector. “In a wrinkle that puzzles economists,” the article states, “one important driver of the trend is that hundreds of thousands of men are showing up in retailing, once considered a source of jobs for women.” The fact that men are now willing to emasculate themselves by folding clothes and attending to fitting rooms is reportedly a “testament to how difficult the job market is.”
What, exactly, is so puzzling about this trend? More jobs are being generated in the retail sector, millions of Americans are unemployed, and any person, male or female, is willing to work. Seems pretty simple to me. As feminist blogger Jezebel points out, “Yes, let's focus on how awful it is that men are taking these terrible jobs, not that these terrible jobs were supposed to be reserved for women in the first place, and everyone seemed A-OK with it then.”
And, a few years from now, when the economy has (hopefully) rebounded and Americans are back to racking up credit card debt the way Uncle Sam prefers, do you think women are going to get up on podiums and tell men to get out of Old Navy and return to the construction sites? Probably not. And that’s because, once a line of work becomes dominated by men, it becomes more culturally valued. We’ll probably be reading articles about how men were more suited for retail all along.
I realize that post-WWII United States and deep-in-recession United States are not completely symmetrical, but my point is this: Though it’s been decades since WWII, and though the importance of gender equality in the workforce was largely established in the second half of the 20th century, when a national event changes the lives of average Americans (a war, a recession), the cultural tendency is to re-embrace patriarchal traditions with renewed fervor.
In 2012, economists are still perplexed at the idea that men would take jobs in retail, and national presses find the fact that they would do so headline-worthy. But what’s more alarming is how this article—and plenty more out there—are perfectly comfortable with deeming the gender division of labor as natural and acceptable.
The recession is doing an excellent job of exposing the tacit sexism that still exists in the gendered division of labor. This was especially evident in the beginning stages of the recession when the media wailed that men were losing jobs at a higher rate than women (I have to wonder if the reverse had been true if this would have been deemed a recession quite as quickly).
We need to be wary, now more than ever, of these nonchalant claims that gendered roles in the workplace are natural, permanent, and not man-made. As long as we’re focused on the gender of the person getting the paycheck instead of the experience, skills, or performance, we’re still receding.
Photo courtesy of HotlantaVoyeur.
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