In my piece on the Men’s Rights Movement I mentioned that a sexist society demands that women agonise and justify themselves over wanting to “have it all” (i.e. a career and a family), but never asks men to make that choice. Or even to consider that wanting children and a job at the same time, and assuming that one’s family and work life will be arranged to meet that desire, might be a privilege. In this piece I’d like to think a bit more about the way a lot of activities are regarded as “women’s work” by our society, and then designated as “not proper work” because of that assumption. Even in a country which has certain legal safeguards on women’s rights to equal pay and freedom from exploitation (however limited and sloppily enforced), men’s lives are often underpinned by a network of “invisible labour” undertaken by women. This frees up their time for the kind of activity which society recognizes as more “worthwhile”, or which they find more enjoyable.
Childcare is an obvious example, and one which I touched on in that previous article. Looking after children is associated with stereotypes about women: that they are more nurturing, more suited to life at home, have a natural bond with all children and are more emotional (where men are rational.) These ideas about women’s supposed “essential nature” provide justification for excluding them from a career when they have children (since they would be “unnatural” to prefer writing legal opinions to playing with their toddlers at home), or at least for not arranging a work culture which is flexible enough to accommodate breastfeeding, picking up children from school or the other demands of parenthood.
The assumption that women are “naturally” inclined to spend their lives at home with children is then used to devalue the labour of women who do. After all, if it just comes naturally to them, how can it be “proper work” in the same sense as driving a forklift? Women are stereotyped in ways which permit them to be edged out of the workplace, and then classed as not doing real work when they perform the childcare which enables their male partners to…well, to make partner. Or to take a meeting at six o’clock, or to lock up the warehouse after everyone’s gone, or to drive the rig overnight, or whatever demands a job might have which couldn’t be met if someone else wasn’t taking care of the kids.
In a lot of families, that “someone else” may not be a female partner, but it’s likely to be a woman, and very often a woman in a lower income bracket than the family in question. Having devalued childcare as not “proper work”, our society can then use that to justify paying a lower wage to the women who undertake it. In Polly Toynbee’s book Hard Work, during which she took a series of low-paying jobs to expose misconceptions about working class life, she describes working at a smart and prestigious nursery in the centre of London, not far from her own haunts as a political reporter. Whilst taking the children for walks, and even being visited by a cabinet minister, she was terrified that her cover would be blown by someone recognising her. It never happened. Despite seeing people she had met at drinks parties and press briefings, no-one ever looked at the woman taking care of the children and saw the face of the famous political columnist. She was an invisible labourer in both senses; someone who did unrecognised work had somehow become unrecognisable.
This store of invisible labour underpins a great deal of men’s lives, generally without them even noticing. Just as women are stereotyped as naturally nurturing, they’re often described as gregarious and talkative. Women gathering for a gossip over coffee, a natter in a winebar, or (in a previous era) a chat over the back fence are all familiar images from advertising and journalism. Women are envisioned as more social, more inclusive and more concerned with “relationships” in the broadest sense. This also strikes me as part of the system which allots women valuable work and then claims it’s just part of their nature. Because as long as I’ve been involved with the arts, I’ve been meeting women who keep the networks functioning.
Back in school male rock bands would play at parties which girls had organised. In college poetry festivals or creative writing magazines would have mast-heads full of men poised to share their work, but the contact email address would be a woman’s. Launch parties for shows would be arranged by girlfriends, or just friends, who liked theatre but didn’t write themselves. The “producer girlfriend”, who set up her own independent theatre outfit to put on her boyfriend’s plays, was a known stereotype at university – and one which provoked laughter along mutterings about bossy women with no talent. Then, when a show got going, it was often women who stuffed envelopes, handed out flyers, called their friends to organise a group of people to go, and then turned up to buy the tickets and sit in the audience.
I’m not claiming to be innocent or enlightened here: I benefited enormously from women’s unrecognised labour, whilst taking it all as my due. Women published my poems and produced my plays, then invited me onto the radio to talk about my writing and suggested trips to see the work of other young men. I knew an awful lot of remarkably talented young women at university, and I’m fairly sure that men didn’t always do all those things for them. Which is not to say that producing, publishing and managing aren’t valuable: they are enormously necessary, but arts groups often seem to follow society by devaluing them as less worthwhile contributions. Women do them, so they can’t be terribly important. They’re just a side-effect, it is implied, of women being naturally more social, or chatty, or bossy, or subservient, or even maternal. (I expect the same thing is the case in other fields, such as politics, but I can’t speak from experience.)
In one of Simon Brett’s novels about the raffishly, boozily hopeless actor Charles Paris, his protagonist goes to a stage manager with a problem about the current production of Twelfth Night. He notices a look on her face which the actor immediately recognises as one he has seen on the face of female stage managers throughout his career. It’s a look which says “What you are asking is totally impossible, just like all the things people have asked today, but somehow it will get sorted”. It’s a coping in a theatrical chaos expression. And Brett goes on to say that Charles always finds it rather sexy. It’s a bizarre moment, but one which suddenly illuminates the invisible labour of the arts world, and the way it is heavily gendered. and thus sexualised for a character like Charles. The fact that the stage manager is sorting things out in the midst of a chaotic production reminds him of her gender, and that he fancies people who are “womanly” (at least in that way.) Outside fiction, the same note is struck by interviews with women who worked in the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid to late twentieth century. There was an awful lot of rhetoric about being a theatrical “family” rather than a heartless money-making enterprise, they remembered, but that tended to mean women taking care of people and men making decisions. The same rhetoric of the family, which associates women with staying at home in a nurturing role, was used to justify the de facto male leadership of an arts company, whilst pretending this was just due to people’s natural abilities.
I admit I’m generalising from my own experience, but in that experience I can remember a lot more female producers and directors, and a lot more male playwrights and critics, than seems coincidental, let alone all the ancillary work buried far down in the programme listings. Interesting phrase, that: “ancillary work”. It comes from the Latin “ancilla”, meaning a maid or a slave girl. Ancillary services – the work which supports the main declared mission of an organisation, whether that’s selling ribs or managing hedge funds – is gendered female in our casual vocabulary. It’s also, given the way the Roman slave trade extended across the empire, potentially racialized. The word for coping with the practical matters, sorting out the unglamorous stuff and getting your hands mucky, is Latin for an unfree woman, who may be of a different colour to her employer. It’s a revealing association, I think. Ancillary work is invisible in many ways: it might happen before or after office hours, it may be done by people who do not appear on tax registers, it may be unmentioned in company reports and end of year speeches. It may be discounted as work because it’s just something that sort of person is good at – or it may be obscured as labour because it is sexualized as a fantasy identity like “groupie” or “saucy French maid” (or even “sexy stage manager”.)
Our society finds many ways to devalue certain kinds of work, and to deny that they are really work at all. Images of race, class and gender are all manipulated to deny people recognition for the value they contribute: I phrased this topic as one about women, but it is impossible not to recognise the intersections with other identities which are involved. It’s time for men like me to consider more seriously the system of invisible labour which undergirds our lives, which enables us to make choices which other people are not offered, and to see the ways in which our work is valorized and applauded whilst other people’s is derided and obscured.
 Played by Bill Nighy in the radio version, who else?