What is a woman's work worth? Pandemic deals 'enormous setback' to equality in workforce, says freelancer

Women have had an enormous setback during the COVID-19 pandemic as their work has become devalued, says Winnipeg freelance writer Joanne Seiff.

'It's not just low-wage workers who bear the brunt of this societal disruption': Joanne Seiff

A woman walks by a jobs advertisement sign in Toronto in April. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women, whose work has become devalued, says Winnipeg freelance writer Joanne Seiff. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

While canning pickles this summer, I recognized that, as many other women have found during the pandemic, there's neither the time nor the market for my professional work as a freelancer.

There's no point in breaking down the policy issues or the how-to steps in an article, because by the time I get to writing, after my kids are in bed, I'm no longer focused or awake enough to get the ideas down.

What does canning have to do with freelancing?

When I can food, the work has a beginning and end. If I do it correctly, the jar seals and there's some healthy "fast food" on the shelf. When I open the lid later, there's still a bit of sunshine in that jar.

I feel the same way about my freelance work as a writer, editor and designer. While I think through and analyze a problem and synthesize it to write something, I bottle something important. My completed piece captures a spark that I found. If readers get to it, they read those (hopefully) bright ideas.

Yet sometimes, I'll spend hours to stay up, write it, and then find no one will buy it.

The editor couldn't afford $75 per column. That's what my work was worth, pre-COVID. Now, it's worth nothing.- Joanne Seiff

In mid-March, I wrote my twice-monthly column for a small newspaper. When I read the next issue, my column wasn't there. I emailed the editor — did the submission get lost?  That's when I found out I no longer had a column at that paper, after five years. 

I'd never earned much from that job but felt that it was an opportunity to make a positive difference, so I kept doing it — until the editor couldn't afford $75 per column. That's what my work was worth, pre-COVID. Now, it's worth nothing. The editor asked if I would write the column for free. I declined.

I submitted other pieces that disappeared without acknowledgement or even a prompt "No, thank you."

Collapsing careers

Around me, women professionals had similar experiences. They managed households and home-schooling as their careers were falling down around them. 

I know of two women with PhDs in biology who had career disruptions during this time. One was laid off, despite having skills immediately useful for pandemic research. The other, an instructor and a person of colour, is still in a temporary role while she watches the newly hired "permanent" instructor (white) sign on to take over the classes she used to teach. 

Others worked from home in closets, while also caring for toddlers — until those mothers, too, were laid off. One friend also cared for a self-isolating spouse while he waited for his COVID test to come back negative.

The hardest story is from a single-mom friend. Hired at the pandemic's beginning as a grocery store essential worker, she has only been scheduled to work part-time. She keeps showing up for work while customers snarl at her mask, throw food at her, and fail to social distance. 

The store still hasn't raised her pay above $11.65 an hour. When grocery stores boasted about their $2-an-hour bonus pandemic pay, she wasn't eligible. That was only for people who worked over a certain minimum number of hours a week. Then, surprise! All of the part-time workers were scheduled for less work than that. 

Once, she worked an extra shift, taking her over the minimum, and got a whole $4 bonus.

My friend says that when she was unemployed, she had more money to feed her children than she does now. With this part-time minimum wage (which never becomes full-time) grocery store job, she gets no consistent discount on groceries. She still has to use the food bank.

'Unsettling' post-war parallels

All this coalesced as I read an article written by a male politician. He compared whether one "works from home" or "at home." The distinction was lost on me after he explained the need to find a spot "away from children and pets."  

Who did he think took care of those dependents while he dithered over "from" and "at?" I wondered what she did professionally before being relegated to keeping kids and dogs quiet while "the man of the house" worked.

An archival photo shows women working at the Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William, Ont., where 3,000 women built fighter planes during the Second World War. Seiff sees parallels between the current situation for working women and the post-war period, when women 'were expected to feel fulfilled and satisfied as "happy" housewives again.' (Canadian Museum of History)

This significant hit to women's work has unsettling parallels to the women laid off after the Second World War. Competent women filled many professional roles during the war, but afterwards, were sent back home.

Women were expected to feel fulfilled and satisfied as "happy" housewives again. It was decades before women regained their place in the workforce.

I do like canning and baking bread. I wouldn't do this domesticity otherwise. However, I'm doing it because it feeds my household. It saves money, but it's not making money. It's not a paycheque. It doesn't utilize my education or professional skills.

Women's work and incomes have had an enormous setback, and the pandemic isn't over yet. In my husband's extended family, three elderly relatives have died alone in the hospital. We must reconsider how elder care and child care is managed and by whom — not just women. It's not just low-wage workers who bear the brunt of this societal disruption.

Personally, I'd like a chance to occasionally get back to business, where I write about ideas and get paid for it. Canning's going fine and my breads look good, but I've written those articles already. 

I didn't go to graduate school just to stick to cooking anecdotes. Like many women, it's my brain (and time to use it and be paid for it) that needs support.   

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.


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