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Shaming women for paying others to do ‘care work’ won’t fix inequality


Back when I was a student working part time and living in a sharehouse, my roomies and I would pool our money for a fortnightly cleaner. On cleaning day we'd make sure every room was reasonably tidy, and in the evening we'd come home to spotless surfaces and that clean-house-smell. It was a luxury that we considered well worth paying for, to avoid the horrific alternative of partially-ignored cleaning rosters, passive aggressive sticky notes and kitchen standoffs.

Sure, it was kinda bourgie. But perhaps because it was a share house and I wasn't a professional-class woman trying to juggle a demanding career and family, I also didn't feel that paying for a cleaner meant I was 'leaning on' anyone to get ahead. I was simply paying for a service, just like I would pay for a handyman to fix something. Or a taxi ride, or a haircut or pizza delivery.

But for many folks out there, jobs that look a bit like the work that women are just expected to do as part of daily life (ie: housework, childcare) have a special significance. And that significance is that they shouldn't exist, or at least, that professional women shouldn't be using them to make life at home a little easier while pursuing a career.

According to a piece in The New York Times over the weekend, that's what we call 'lean-on' feminism.

The article, A Feminism Where 'Lean In' Means Leaning On Others, is an interview with Nancy Fraser, a professor of philosophy and politics at The New School. It addresses some important points about the dangers of an individualistic feminism that focuses too much on elevating privileged women while maintaining, even widening, the gap between rich and poor. And that is a legitimate problem.


But much of Fraser's argument centres around the fact that as women find themselves climbing the professional ladder, they are doing so with the assistance of other people (often women, and often poorly educated and/or immigrant women) who they pay to do housework and childcare. Today's mainstream feminism, Fraser argues, is too concerned with "encouraging educated middle-class women to 'lean in' and 'crack the glass ceiling' – in other words, to climb the corporate ladder" - and that in order to do this women "offload" their 'care work' onto others.

There are definitely problems with the 'lean in' model - not least that it puts the onus on women to change their behaviour to better compete with men, rather than seeking to overhaul the workplace. Climbing the corporate ladder is also an individualist pursuit, not a feminist one - and there's nothing feminist about dedicating your life to big business.

But the idea that 'care work' is something women "offload" onto the less fortunate came straight from the Book of Patriarchy's chapter on "Drawing a sexist dichotomy between 'women's work' and work that is a 'real job'"; it's no coincidence that the same argument is favoured by MRAs and misogynist nutters like The Real Mark Latham.

The term 'offload' itself is incredibly loaded here. It suggests that 'care work' - unlike all other types of work - is inherently personal; something women in particular should take personal responsibility for dealing with, rather than having the gall to hand to another in exchange for money.

We don't talk about people "offloading" the personal task of driving onto taxi drivers - although taxi companies often employ immigrant workers, and it's undoubtedly tough work that isn't highly paid. Nor do people who buy Chinese takeout have the finger pointed at them for exploiting immigrant labour instead of cooking their own dinner. And what about people who offload their admin to a young receptionist? Paying for this sort of 'assistance' goes unquestioned. But help at home? Apparently that's pure feminist hypocrisy.

I want to be clear on this: the fact that women of colour are overrepresented at the bottom of the ladder is an extremely important issue for feminism that middle class feminists cannot ignore. But making working women on the middle rungs the scapegoats for a system created and geared overwhelmingly to benefit wealthy white men is both nonsensical and damaging.

It can be tempting to lump all career women into the corporate ladder-climbing, 'white feminism' box. But women looking to crack the glass ceiling aren't just white women. They aren't just working for big bad business. They're also women of colour; women working in politics, in law, in medicine, in science, in arts, in sport, in education and academia. Not all of the women in these fields are feminists, but many are. And the idea that feminism can make a difference to the world without having women succeeding across the spectrum of professional fields - particularly fields that shape the future direction of society - is a fantasy. As is the idea that they should do it alone - without the help of people who are paid, adequately, to assist them.

It's not OK for women who call themselves feminists to trample on others in their climb to the top. Women do not automatically deserve applause for simply taking up positions formerly reserved for men, especially if it involves exploiting others for personal gain and doing little to benefit society at large. But paying someone to help you does not equate to exploiting them - and there is no good reason to paint the employment of cleaners, nannies and childcare workers as a failure of feminism.

What we need to focus on is ensuring that these jobs are valued, respected, and adequately paid - just like any other industry. And that is a challenge - but not one that will be met by finger-pointing and handwringing over whether women accessing this paid assistance are making an immoral choice.

The society we live in is also an economic ecosystem. People across all socio-economic levels trade work for money, and vice versa. Some jobs pay a lot better than others, and people born into more privileged circles are granted more opportunities to attain higher paid work. We know this system is not a fair one now - but the more we can do to level the playing field, even out the distribution of wealth and provide equal access to services like quality healthcare and education, the fairer we can make it. And we can't do that from the margins.

Women didn't build the capitalist heirarchies that rule our world now. And as nice it is to think we could just tear them down and build from scratch our own feminist egalitarian utopia, that's not exactly a realistic approach. In reality women must infiltrate these structures and the halls of power if we're to have any hope of bending them into a fairer shape. And women cannot do that without support. Shaming those who can afford to pay others to work for them will do nothing to address the real challenges we face in working towards a fairer society.