What Does Equal Opportunity for Women Mean in the Future of Work?

In the second half of 2021, I wrote a chapter for a recently published book of Nova Publications: Women Entrepreneurs and Employment: Past, Present and Future. It was a challenging project as we entered the second and difficult year of the COVID pandemic with all its implications for work and employment. In particular the pandemic brought into focus the centrality of the ‘care economy’ in which women are concentrated, for the well-being – and prosperity of the world. I was interested in pursuing the meaning of gender equality in work – essentially ‘equal opportunity’ – in this new context that the pandemic had spawned. And crucially what ‘equal opportunity’ means in the emerging ‘future of work’.

The summary (abstract) of my chapter as follows:

In the third decade of the 21st century, it is clear that there has been limited success of ‘equal opportunity’ goals for women with the ongoing gender wage gap and gendered division of labour. Moreover, women face fresh challenges as new models of employment emerge and there is increasing job polarisation across the labour market with the loss of middle level, secure jobs. In consideration of these factors, what does equal opportunity mean in the emerging world of work and does it remain relevant or even possible?

To answer these questions, we need a better framing of the nature of women’s comparative employment disadvantage for the present and coming decades. And how does it intersect with increasing employment disadvantage for men encompassing job polarisation, wage stagnation and precarity? The goal of equal opportunity embraced the aspirations that merit, hard work and talent are the foundations for upward economic and social mobility. But increasing inequality has significantly obstructed these aspirations.

In the new world of work, equal opportunity could in fact mean equality between men and women in low wage and insecure jobs. It could be confounded as work and employment are reconstructed through digitisation, automation and the proliferation of new organisational structures such as through the ‘gig economy,’ extensive contracting out, and globalised labour markets. With such new structures unfolding how do women fare? How does the gendered division of labour unfold especially in relation to the growth of the care economy with ageing populations – and a potential for an ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Since ‘equal opportunity’ goals for women emerged in the 1960s when their labour force participation started to increase, the conditions on which these goals were founded have undergone profound changes. A core issue is what they mean in the 21st century.

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