• On a Feminist Conception of Work

  • By Lia Cigarini | 27 May 09
  • I would like to discuss with you the question of labour from the point of view of its feminine specificity which has been, and is, in my opinion, creating new political forms and a new way of thinking of work.

    The principal change which occurred due to the exponential growth of women’s labour is that when we speak of it we are speaking of labour in general, of men and women, without specification. Part-time and marginality no longer characterise feminine labour. In fact, women, being the most educated and cultured part of society, are rapidly increasing their presence in sectors previously almost completely masculine, such as in the judiciary, where they are around 40%, in the ministries (47%), in prefectoral careers (44%), in public non-economic entities (51%), and in the national health service (58%). As far as second-generation free-lance work is concerned, women make up 57% of consultants and 40% of unregistered professionals. Finally, as far as liberal professions are concerned, if we consider those registered in associations at 44 years of age, they turn out to be a majority of doctors and lawyers.

    These data tell us that women are amply represented in sectors like health and law, school and university, and in the high value-added service sector, which should be the decisive sectors for the social and political development of a country.

    These data also tell us that in those places which one reaches through competitions or qualifying examinations or through a high-level professional formation and not by co-optation, women are present in very different percentages. While they work hard in places they reach by co-optation, namely in politics, which has to all intents and purposes become a paid metier, and in careers within enterprises where professionalism and competence are rarely considered resources that favour women and lead to retaining them with flexible schedule when they become mothers. (Moreover, as is known, in Italy so-called human capital is generally undervalued; both women and men workers are considered only as a cost.) It should be added that in politics and in business enterprises men tend to hire their own in institutions of power. In the area of labour, therefore, conflict between the sexes is beginning to appear.

    I think, however, that there is no need to cite other statistics on feminisation of labour to convince us that, despite masculine opposition, feminine labour is not a segment of the labour market as was thought until now; it is, rather, labour tout court. Feminisation is not a question only of quantitative data but of a change in mental schemes, management techniques and product strategies. The present mode of production, in fact, by way of technological development, requires giving one’s psyche and body; the walls of the private, the familiar are broken through and material and immaterial goods are produced which require more intellectual preparation and physical effort, etc. This tends to favour women workers who have more study titles and above all a more relational attitude.

    “It is rather natural, therefore, that being the protagonist of work in post-fordism, women are also the hinge of coalition dynamics, including those which in many cases require initiative”, according to Sergio Bologna in the recently published book Ceti medi senza futuro? [Middle Strata Without Future?] (Derive Approdi 2007).

    I will return to the point of women’s practical politics as a decisive element in understanding how labour is changing and in possibly modifying it.

    Here I would like to underline that, in the face of a left and trade union that continue to emphasise the disadvantaged condition of women and set the goal as parity with men, some scholars / politicians of labour, for example Alain Touraine in the book Le Monde des femmes 2006, soon to be published in Italy, see them as active and thinking subjects of a politics for our time.

    In fact, he affirms that “women as collective actors create the stakes and the cultural field of conflict with other social actors … , in other words they construct themselves repairing that which was dismembered by globalisation, by exposure to the drift of market forces”.

    Alain Touraine, like Sergio Bologna, Christian Marazzi and others, have taken seriously what has been said for years by report groups and groups reflecting on feminine work experience, that is that women are not modelled and politicised with the cognitive and political paradigms of fordism, but rather following the feminist consciousness and the activism of the feminist movement.

    Feminists in the strict sense have been a minority, but the movement has radiated in the whole social body and has thus modified women’s sense of themselves as well as the relations between the sexes.

    Recounting in a loud voice, within their consciousness-raising groups, their experience, of which the culture had known too little, women finally appeared in public space. Labour is undoubtedly a fundamental articulation of public space. This public space which welcomes women, was able to create itself because separation (meetings exclusively of women) drew a line creating a symbolic field of feminine autonomy.

    The community, the places where people speak, are innumerable, and the process of speaking up is not yet over, rather it has been taken up again in small groups scattered throughout Italy, which reflect on the meaning of work, on desires, and needs and interests which they bring to work.

    The presence of women in the work force as protagonists, connected to consciousness, is therefore the disruptive element in the market and opens up new conflicts on the political and symbolic level, the level at which it is more narration and more representation, rather than political representation, that is needed.

    Following this formulation, I think therefore that narration is the practice adapted to breaking the paradigmatic framework (in which one makes of work and of workers objects of analysis and study rather than having them speak in the first person) through a new experience.

    Is there another way of undoing those interpretative paradigms which do not account for the feminine labour experience?

    Let us introduce at this point a consideration: The partial overcoming of the division between the productive and reproductive spheres, about which Sergio Bologna, Alain Touraine and others, have spoken has not nullified the specific way in which women are tied to life and the work of healing. They passionately study and want to work, remaining however linked to the symbolic and to the practices of reproduction of human existence. From this, for example, their attention to relationships of which we have already spoken.

    This is why I maintain that labour in the feminine mould has a broader and deeper meaning than that which men imagine, or, better, it is at bottom work as the junction between production and reproduction of existence. And here I see an irreducible difference between women and men in work. By this I do not at all mean to distort the thesis that women’s work is work tout court, rather to show that the presence of women in work gives us an extra lever.

    Using this lever of feminine work one can remove labour from the many abstractions that has dehumanised it. And noting that “a woman carries everything” to the market, also the quality of relations in the workplace and the work of healing, one can think more concretely of a valorisation of “human capital”.

    The majority of women, in fact, say yes to work and yes to maternity. I have always struggled to make it clear that the feminine difference is not of the order of things (women are different because they bear children), but the sense and meaning which is given to being a woman. And it is, therefore of a symbolic order.

    Nevertheless, it seems important to emphasise that this double yes in the present organisation of work, based on the desires and needs of men, comprises new and different contradictions.

    The first is between labour time and living time. Through this contradiction, time and its flexibility, part-time, work at home, the acquiring of a free-lance work job which to some extent allows the autonomous organisation of time, and time becomes prioritised above salary. The data tell us then that women enter and leave the productive cycle according to the rhythm of life: At the birth of the first child, 2,500,000 women in Italy remain home (for this reason, among others, women workers are less able to be represented by the trade union).

    This double yes perhaps means less adherence to the masculine mystique of work and provides a limit to alienation: when it is a question of earning more money, a labour lawyer once told me, there is no limit to masculine alienation. This is to say that for women there is an opportunity to engage in a play between personal relations and relations imposed and regulated by the market. They do not give themselves up completely to the standard of money and competition. This dialectic is by now visible and no longer quiet.

    I therefore do not agree with those analyses that see in this development a further commodification of human activity (the idea that life, private relations, become commodities, and are thus snatched up by capital); the fact that women carry “everything to the market” makes visible that which goes beyond profit and therefore makes possible the beginning of a change in the organisation of labour.

    I think that, if one broadens these reflections on work, keeping steady the line of difference, other mediations and constructions of the masculine workerist tradition fall down.

    What is now involved, for everyone, is to rethink the sense of women’s and men’s work. The dynamic factor for me is the sexual difference.

    The formula I prefer in order to take account of what is now happening, is the one I delineated earlier: carry everything to the market: subjectivity and relations, children, passions and affectivity, etc., do not separate therefore the relational sphere from the world of work, as has been done until now.


    Lia Cigarini is a major figure of Italian feminism. She has been a lawyer, a politician and central to the "autocoscienza femminile" movement.