This week, women around the world will protest the devaluation of their labourby Jessica Abrahams / March 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
“First we marched, now we strike! Wednesday 8th March will be a day without women!”
These are the kinds of battle cries currently doing the rounds on social media as women in the US and dozens of other countries prepare for a general strike on International Women’s Day on Wednesday. The idea is to withdraw from economic activity—both paid and unpaid work, and spending money—for 24 hours to prove the value of women’s labour and to protest recent assaults on women’s rights.
The event recalls the legendary Icelandic women’s strike of 1975, when an estimated 90 per cent of the country’s female population took the day off to protest unequal pay. Chaos ensued. With men forced to take on childcare and employment responsibilities, schools were shuttered for the day and shops were empty. Male managers had to take on the duties of junior female employees. Icelanders later said that children could be heard screaming in the background of radio news bulletins. Legislation on gender equality was passed within a year.
The incident came to mind last year when, faced with a right-wing government attempting to introduce a near total ban on abortions, Polish women hit on the same tactic. Though much smaller in scale than the Icelandic strike—a feat in size that has never been repeated—thousands and thousands of Polish women nonetheless boycotted the office for the day and poured into the streets instead. The proposed legislation collapsed later that week.
Women have recognised the economic power they hold, even as their work goes undervalued. In the office, the gender pay gap persists at 18 per cent, according to the latest government figure, and traditionally female career paths involving care work continue to be among the lowest paid. In the home, their unpaid labour goes unrecognised in economic output figures, though it props up the economy and is essential to the making of government savings. Unpaid carers—most of whom are women—for the elderly and disabled save the government more than £130bn a year, according to a University of Sheffield and Carers UK report; while the Office for National Statistics recently calculated the value of unpaid childcare at about £315bn.
If that work is not included in the figures, it doesn’t get taken into account in policy or budget making. For…