Stop Expecting Free Work from Women

For thousands of years, women have been saddled with the expectation that they perform labour for free to benefit the people around them. Put in position as caregivers, managers of households, and more, they’ve kept family units functional without compensation for generations. That’s something that started to be challenged in a more meaningful way in the 20th century, but it continues to be an issue. The underlying belief that women’s work of any kind is worth less than that of men, that women owe free labour, is still quite common, including in ‘progressive’ communities, something which deeply puzzles me.

Women are routinely expected, for example, to perform hard cultural, artistic, and emotional work ‘for the cause’ without any expectation of compensation. In fact, it’s considered gauche to request any form of payment or acknowledgment; apparently women should be writing articles, crafting things, marching in the streets, leading classes, and more all for free, with no support, because they matter less than men. Men who are doing the same things; giving lectures, being published in magazines, creating posters, and so forth, are being paid, and their work is acknowledged as what it is: work.

Work for a cause, work they enjoy, important work, work they love doing, but still work. They may offer to take a honorarium or reduced stipend to reflect the fact that the people paying don’t have a lot of money to spend and may not be able to afford to fully compensate them, but they still don’t work for free. And this is considered not just reasonable and acceptable, but entirely appropriate; of course people who perform work are entitled to pay! How could things possibly be otherwise? Someone who does something like producing art for a poster should be paid for it! A person who leads a workshop to teach people who to deal with police should receive compensation!

A journalist working in progressive media, while writing stories to advance the cause and get people thinking about social issues, is still a journalist! That person needs to be able to do research, eat, perform tasks of daily living in order to keep writing, keep meeting subjects, keep working on stories! Hence, payment is required for completed work!

Oh, except when that person is a women. Women should labour for free, should donate endless time and energy to the cause. They should be happy when their work is appropriated by men for their own uses because, hey, it’s for a cause. It’s ‘exposure’ and ‘getting the idea out there’ is more important than providing any form of respect to the creator, right? And surely women journalists breaking stories in the trenches, women organising on the streets, women leading the fight for change, should be so happy when the male cavalry arrives to take over, sorry, ‘help’ now that they’ve done the groundwork.

The fact that people still think women’s work is worthless is infuriating, and it’s especially so in supposedly egalitarian movements. When people express irritation and anger at women who ask for credit, who ask to be compensated, there’s a serious problem with your social movement. Women working for the cause may choose to donate some or all of their time, but they shouldn’t be forced into it, nor should there be an expectation that they should do so; to the contrary, they should have to actively turn down compensation rather than volunteering to go without.

Women still need to eat, to live, to clothe themselves. They have lives and cannot give everything up in service of some greater ideal. They are not flittering about living on their husband’s money like socialites in the 1800s who took up the cause of those poor, oppressed workers, though those women had their roles in social movements too. These are women fighting for their lives and for the dignity of those they know and love. They cannot afford to be so casual about compensation, about credit, about surviving, because they need to think about how they are going to eat, where they are going to stay, how they will pay for health care.

It’s assumed that men need compensation because, well, they’re men. They have things to do, people to support. They’re important. Why aren’t women accorded the same respect? Why must they fight for dignity within their own social movements at the same time they’re trying to build a more functional world, one where equality is more than a pipe dream and where people of all genders are considered of equal value and importance?

This belief that women are inconsequential and valueless is deeply, deeply wrong, and it’s dismaying to see it so casual and widespread in spaces where people should know better. Women volunteering their labour deserve to be honoured for it, instead of being treated like dirt. And women who can’t afford to volunteer, who need to support themselves, shouldn’t be treated like the axis of evil when they request compensation or assistance for performing the work they do. How can you say you’re committed to gender parity and fair treatment when you’re not respecting the women within your own movement? How dare you say that this is ‘too important’ for petty matters like day-to-day survival?