Tag Archives: Elizabeth Shilton

Recognizing the family/work nexus: Domestic work, pensions, and feminist projects at Feminist Friday

The last Friday in January was our last Feminist Friday of the year – here’s a recap:

Ana Gomes started things off with her discussion of domestic work in Brazil. She presented a very complete picture of the situation of female domestic workers in Brazil, including the enormous number of women working in this zone, the impact of colour and gender discrimination, the isolation of domestic workers which makes violation of their rights virtually invisible, and the lack of unionization in this sector – particularly surprising, according to Dr. Gomes, since:

“everyone has trade unions in Brazil – even astrologers….”

Prof. Gomes’ work aims to untangle the ways that we might ensure the rights of domestic workers – a particularly complicated task, especially given the cascading consequences of women’s work and traditional gender roles, which mean that as more women move into paid labour, their labour must also pay for domestic work.  In addition, the domestic work of the domestic worker must still be done.  Many of the arguments and statistics Ana discussed can be found in this working paper that Ana co authored with Patrícia Tuma Martins Bertolin.

Elizabeth Shilton’s work moved our focus to Canada, and to the end of women’s working lives – retirement and pensions.  She asked us why governments, spooked by recent worrisome pension fund deficits and the coming ‘grey tsunami’, are looking at market based pension reforms.  This despite the fact that old age poverty is again on the rise in Canada, after having been “virtually eliminated” in the 1960’s, and market based systems can only exacerbate inequality.  Shilton pointed out that since workplace pension coverage is shrinking, remaining strong only the in public sector where women are overrepresented, women actually have a higher rate of workplace pension coverage. 39% of employed women vs. 37% of employed men.

But, in the pension realm, women get about 60¢ on the dollar when compared to men.  This is worse than the current inequity for full time workers, where women get 70¢ on the male-earned dollar.

Elizabeth’s work focuses on trying to conceptualize the work/family nexus towards pension reform proposals which forefront gender equality.  Elizabeth claims that her own work on this issue is at an early stage.  For those who are interested in reading more about gender and pensions in the context of the current Canadian pension reform project, she suggested some reading material (see the bottom of this post).

I asked Prof. Kerry Rittich to follow these two presentations by pulling out some overarching themes, and I’ll spend a bit more time on what she said in this post, since it was a one off for this Feminist Friday presentation.

She started by referrring to two recent books.  The first, Gosta Esping-Andersen, The Incomplete Revolution: Adapting Welfare States to Women’s New Roles (click here for google books ordering links), she picked because it highlights the ways that the “welfare states” have failed to come to grips with post-war social changes, most notably the massive entry of women into the workforce , with undesirable and even perverse results. The other book, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up (click here for google books/ordering links) is sometimes called the Sarkozy report, since it was commissioned by the President of France.   Exclusive reliance on market activity and paid labour distorts or inflates both how much growth is really going on and much improvement (or deterioration) in welfare results.

At least part of Kerry’s point here was that both books, written by eminent, Nobel prize winning men who are not feminists, nevertheless take up a significant feminist issue – care work’s articulation to the market, and how we do value, or value differently, or fail to value, that work.  These men have joined feminists in pointing out that we are all “in denial about a raft of basic issues” including how we are supposed to do care work under this “full commodification model”.
Kerry also used Ana and Elizabeth’s presentations to launch into an attempt to sketch out how improving domestic   work for Canadian domestic workers might be strategized, and she concludes that we could have to start by market intervention designed to drive up the cost of domestic work.  But we would also have to be very cognizant of all those women who must have some domestic work in order to do their own paid work – many of whom would be unable to afford it at all if the price went up unless the costs were shared or socialized in some way.

The fact is that we cannot hope to truly affect the reality of domestic work through legal reforms alone – it will require a political and cognitive and ideological project.

Unless we take on the economic situation and bargaining power not only of domestic workers, but of the (women) who hire them – and then the institutions/people who hire the women who hire domestic workers, we will not have a complete grasp of the processes at work, and reform efforts are doomed to either failure, or unintended consequences.

One part of how we might start to move forward on this daunting project is to map out the legal universe that is in play and that structures these multiple relationships.  For this, Kerry referred to an article she co authored with Janet Halley of Harvard (excerpt here) in which they developed a taxonomy of family law which could be helpfully extended to other areas of focus.  Imagine four “levels” of Family Law [FL]:

“Family Law 1-FL1-” is what you will find in a modern family law code, course, bar exam, or casebook. It comprises marriage and its alternatives: divorce, parental status, and parental rights and duties; in some countries it includes inheritance and in others, for interesting reasons, it does not”
FL2 “But if you wanted to understand how law contributes to the ways in which actual  family and household life is lead by actual people, you would never stop there. You would immediately look for the explicit  family-targeted provisions peppered throughout substantive legal regimes that seem to have no primary commitment to maintaining the distinctiveness of the family-regimes ranging from tax law to immigration law to bankruptcy law. We can call that Family Law 2, or FL2.”
FL3 “In the still-deeper background would then be Family Law 3-FL3-the myriad legal regimes that contribute structurally but silently to the ways in which family life is lived and the household structured, sometimes intentionally, sometimes in ways we could describe as functionally rational, sometimes in the mode of disparate impact or sheer accident or even perversely. For simple examples of FL3, imagine occupancy limits in landlord/tenant law that give more or less protection to incumbents; employment rules that permit dismissal on the part of the employer “at will” or, by contrast, require employers to give notice to employees who are dismissed without cause; rules that exclude household employees from the protective legislation governing workplaces or that craft special regimes governing such employees.

FL4 “Finally, we take it as given that any probing legal analysis of the family or household, and certainly one that attempts to track the effects of legal rules on the bargaining endowments of different household members, needs to attend to a wide range of informal norms, as they may substantially alter the impact of FL1, 2, and 3 and, in some cases, effectively “govern” the household. While their status as law is a live question for us….we have no doubt that these norms belong somewhere on the map and, at least for some purposes, we think of them as Family Law 4 (FL4).”

From JANET HALLEY & KERRY RITTICH Critical Directions in Comparative Family Law: Genealogies and Contemporary Studies of Family Law Exceptionalism  INTRODUCTION TO THE SPECIAL ISSUE ON COMPARATIVE FAMILY LAW   58 American Journal of Comparative Law Vol 753

Like I said, it is immensely helpful – but also daunting in its complexity.  So, after the talk, we went out to dinner at Frida, a Mexican restaurant “inspired by Frida Kahlo”.  So far, so feminist, right? And I’m sure that guacamole that good MUST be feminist.


Elizabeth Shilton’s recommended reading on pensions: Pension Security for Women, Report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, December 2009.

Claire Young, “Pensions, Privatization and Poverty: The Gendered Impact”, presented at a conference on Elder Law in Toronto in November 2010
Faye L. Woodman, “The Fiscal Equality of Women: Proposed Changes to Legislation Governing Pensions in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia (2010) 22 CJWL 129.
Georgia Barnwell, Women and Public Pensions: Working Towards Equitable Policy Change, An Initiative of the Women’s Centres in the Western area of Nova Scotia: Tri-County Women’s Centre in Yarmouth, Second Story Women’s Centre in Bridgewater, and The Women’s Place Resource Centre in Bridgetown (January, 2006).

Coming Up! Feminist Friday, January 28 at 2pm

Next in our feminist fridays series, open to all.

28 January 2011

2 – 3:30  Ross N940 Senate Chamber

Feminist Friday:

Women and Work

Visiting Professor Ana Gomes

Regulatory Challenges in Domestic Work: The Case of Brazil

Visiting Professor Elizabeth Shilton,

Gender and Pension Reform

Commentary from Professor Kerry Rittich, University of Toronto Law/Women’s Studies