Valuing ‘women’s’ work: Reflections on (feminist) economic explanations of low pay

Emily Thomson, Senior Lecturer in Economics and researcher in the WISE Centre for Economic Justice, spotlights the theoretical foundations as to why ‘key workers’,  who are mainly women, are undervalued as a consequence of gender bias in economic structures and social norms revealed through feminist economics analysis.


Valuing ‘women’s’ work: Reflections on (feminist) economic explanations of low pay

The term ‘key worker’ has entered our collective vocabulary during this COVID-19 crisis. Amongst the workers are those who are on the front line of health care and social care during the pandemic; most are women and many are low paid. There has been a dawning realisation in the popular consciousness that the wages associated with these roles are significantly undervalued in relation to their importance to society (a point that feminist economists have been making for decades). But why are women over-represented in these roles and why are they traditionally so low paid?

Explanations of occupational segregation by gender fall into two main camps: the economic perspective that asserts that as free ‘rational’ economic agents, more women than men choose to go into caring roles as an expression of their preferences.  Similarly, it is claimed that more women than men opt for these jobs because they offer greater work-life balance and/or flexibility, allowing women to assert their preferences for unpaid care work in the home. In other words, women actively choose low paid work and the gender pay gap is therefore rational and largely unproblematic. This approach fails to recognise that ‘choices’ are made under considerable constraints, for example would women choose part time work over full time work if universal, free (at the point of use) childcare were available to them? The other main perspective claims that structural factors (such as the lack of affordable quality childcare) play a role in clustering women into these types of roles; expectations around the appropriateness (or not) of certain jobs for women or men reflecting stereotypes and assumptions about their ‘natural’ sex-based skills, aptitudes and interests. Under patriarchy, these assumptions also go some way to explaining the systematic undervaluation of female dominated job roles in terms of pay.

Again, there are different theoretical perspectives on how wages are actually determined. Early economic theories explain wage differences in productivity terms, where workers are assumed to be paid in relation to their ‘marginal productivity’ or in relation to the value that they add to the firm’s production. Latterly, human capital theories added to the economic perspective, establishing a causal link between the skills, work experience and qualifications of the individual worker and their earnings. Sociological explanations emphasise the role of institutions in determining wage rates. This could be both formal institutions such as in trades unions engaging in collective bargaining and informal through institutionalised socio-cultural norms and values.

Years of extensive and robust analysis of the gender pay gap have shown that human capital theory does not adequately explain the difference in earnings between men and women (see for example Lips 2013). Feminist explanations therefore draw attention to the role of gendered norms and values in reinforcing and undervaluing female dominated and female associated work. This undervaluation is rooted in the fact that caring and domestic labour has traditionally been done by women in the household (without pay) and the assumption that women gain more job-satisfaction from care work than men; in other words, they are in it for the love, not the money, as if these two motivations were intrinsically at odds (for more detailed consideration see Folbre 2012). The current ‘collision of crises’ in public health and the economy gives us an opportunity as a society to recognise that ‘women’s’ work is worth much more than is currently on offer. It is argued therefore that those who choose to care for a living deserve a wage that is reflective of their true social, not just market, value.


Lips, Hilary (2013) “The Gender Pay Gap: Challenging the Rationalizations. Perceived Equity, Discrimination, and the Limits of Human Capital Models” in Sex Roles 68:169–185

Folbre, Nancy (2012) “Should Women Care Less? Intrinsic Motivation and Gender Inequality” in British Journal of Industrial Relations 50, 4:597–619


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *