What Labor Should Look Like (in Honor of Labor Day)

Industrial Workers of the World Labor Day picnic in Oakland, California in 1939

Industrial Workers of the World Labor Day picnic in Oakland, California in 1939

As a national holiday, Labor Day recognizes the social and economic achievements of American workers. It is a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. Labor has taken many forms over the years, but through it all remains a pillar of how we articulate success and the American experiment: We believe in and glorify hard work as the backbone of what moves our country forward. As we take this weekend to reflect on and celebrate the history of our national work ethic, though, we must also look at its future and what it means for our society when half the population isn’t afforded the same opportunities.

Women make up 46.8% of the labor force yet hold only 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. Globally, the gender wage gap is at 77%, with women around the world averaging the salaries that men earned ten years ago. Research estimates that the pay gap won’t close for more than 100 years, that the numbers are even worse for women of color and for mothers, and that it only worsens as women age.

Over the past decade, alternatives to the traditional or corporate notions of work have arisen that claim to tackle this inequality. In particular, we keep hearing that the gig economy is positioned to transform our labor force. Companies like Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit all use language like “monetizing your resources,” “flexible,” “local,” “connections,” and “community”. They paint a picture of a shared economy, one where resources are reallocated where they’re needed in mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationships, creating the ultimate democratic economy, but it’s not that simple.

Nathan Blecharczyk, Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer of Airbnb. TechCrunch [CC BY 2.0], via WIKIPEDIA Commons

Nathan Blecharczyk, Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer of Airbnb. TechCrunch [CC BY 2.0], via WIKIPEDIA Commons

As much as those who create this emerging kind of labor want to distance it from corporatization and societal hierarchies, they all still manage to land in the same pitfalls of misrepresentation and exploitation. Somewhere along the way this vision of a shared and community-building economy forgot about women. Again.

For all its talk about accessibility and community, Airbnb still hosts a conference with only 30% women invited as speakers. The New York Times’ New Work Summit, claimed to host “top neurologists, technologists, scientists, architects, organizational psychologists, leading C.E.O.s and other experts” yet included only 31% women among said experts. At this point, we don’t even have to go so far as to say that these companies aren’t trying hard enough. They’re depicting a very real and very serious lack of inclusion. Where are the women in STEM? Where are the women in tech? Where are the women leading corporations? Or banks? Or universities? How can we even entertain the notion of a new and radical transformation of labor through an innovation economy when women are rarely found among its ranks?

Especially in the case of innovative, new ideas, we cannot forget to ask: Who is able to access this? Who is profiting from this? Who was this built for? If the answer does not include women (or women of color, or poor women, or disabled women, or disenfranchised women), then none of this is really innovative or radical. It is merely the same system in a different suit. It is the same flawed labor in a different uniform.

Women shipfitters worked on board the USS Nereus shown as they neared completion of the floor in a part of the engine room at the US Navy Yard, Mare Island, California

Women shipfitters worked on board the USS Nereus shown as they neared completion of the floor in a part of the engine room at the US Navy Yard, Mare Island, California

This Labor Day, we can talk about the good. We can talk about the rise of freelancers and increasing popularity of flexible work, the “novel” idea of acknowledging paternity leave, the increasing attention to child care for women at all levels of professional development. But we must not skip over the bad. Women are still sorely underrepresented and often unrecognized and under-rewarded in key pockets of the labor force.

Let’s not just give labor a new uniform as we move forward. Let’s rebuild it from the ground up and make sure that women are included and valued from day one. Otherwise, what is all this innovation really good for?