CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This collection of texts is the latest in a series of collective volumes that have marked out the history of the research of the Marché du travail et genre (Labour market and gender, or MAGE) research group. [1] Its ambitions are to underline both the continuity of the group’s research over the years since its creation under the CNRS in 1995 and offer new contributions to the critical perspective, so crucial in feminist research. As Michelle Perrot recalls here, following the example of female historians of work, MAGE’s researchers have expanded the scope of the sociology of work onto ‘women’s work’. Their research has shown the importance of focusing attention on women not only to demonstrate the effects of the inequalities they experience but also to reveal their roles as producers, creators, and actors in the history of struggles for equality in the world of work. The various strands in the MAGE collective’s research have helped to identify what Nicky Le Feuvre describes as a ‘plethora of more or less subtle, more or less sustainable mechanisms which contribute to delegitimizing women’s place on the labour market’ (p. 269). In the 2000s, the centrality of work as a concept in gender studies seems to have been challenged, with thinking about work and employment considered, in Margaret Maruani’s words, ‘outdated, obsolete, irrelevant’ (p. 10). Likewise, gender inequalities were minimized as ‘residual’, with equality ‘well on its way’. But, Maruani continues, ‘[t]here is no natural gradient towards equality. Inequality remains the default. Yes, its boundaries are mobile, but for the most part, rather than disappearing, they shift.’

2For these reasons too, a critical perspective on the objects of study, as well as the concepts, categories, and tools used, becomes a necessity. But as forms of employment, relationships, situations, and roles in the workplace are in constant transformation, considerable challenges arise in framing and developing research problems, as well as in data collection and analysis. In recent years, critical feminist perspectives have more broadly drawn on the concepts of intersectionality and postcoloniality and offered a clearer reading of processes at work in a global labour market characterized by ‘feminization, flexibilization, fragmentation, and financialization’ (J. Rubery, cited by N. Le Feuvre, p. 272). Thus, the figure of the female, racialized, migrant domestic worker became the focus of numerous studies, coming to symbolize the casualization of paid work, plural forms of oppression, and the blurred boundary between paid and free care work.

3In her introduction to the collection, Maruani points to the particular attention paid throughout to the articulation of the issue of gender and work with the theoretical framework of intersectionality. To emphasize this, the prologue presents the transcript of the opening lecture by the philosopher and feminist civil rights activist Angela Davis at a 2015 colloquium celebrating MAGE’s 20-year anniversary. Its title is taken from her 1981 book Women, Race & Class. In the prologue, Davis takes a historical perspective, recalling the fundamental role of militant action in the struggle for the recognition of women’s rights at work and then in the interest within feminist studies in the interweaving of gender with class and ‘racial’ relations.

4The book is structured in three parts, each with its own introduction. The book’s format, as a series of short chapters on a diversity of case studies and theoretical issues, makes it an enjoyable and stimulating read. The first part, ‘Inflexible Inequalities?’, presented by Danièle Meulders and Rachel Silvera, offers seven chapters that recall the persistence of inequalities and that question the norm on the basis of which they are measured. The implications for the study of inequalities are political and relate to law and public statistics, issues that are explored in the various chapters. Thomas Amossé demonstrates the persistence in France of a large gap between men and women in access to highly qualified and highly paid jobs, even as the number of women facing the risk of precarity has grown. Sophie Pochic analyses the elitist framing of ‘diversity management’ (based, in theory, on networks of high-ranking female professionals) and the rhetoric of ‘market feminism’ in a context where gender equality has become an important focus for businesses in terms of their image and attractiveness. Marie-Thérèse Lanquetin demonstrates that, despite national and international texts guaranteeing legal equality in work and employment, de facto inequalities continue. Moreover, Lanquetin argues, the existence of this legislative framework tends to make these inequalities less visible and thus more difficult to reveal. The four following chapters explore these issues in various national contexts. Combining results from field studies in Brazil, France, and Japan, Helena Hirata shows the usefulness of the imbrication of social relationships for thinking the complexity of the organization of care activities and understanding the relationships of domination in the context in which they are performed. Laura Frader provides an example from the US context of the inadequacy of legislation favouring gender equality when the actors who are in a position to work to ensure its application do not do so. Bila Sorj analyses recent change in research topics in the field of gender and work in Brazil. Finally, Carlos Prieto shows how, in Spain and other European countries, a relatively ‘traditional’ family model is maintained, with little sharing of family tasks, even where mothers are in paid employment.

5The second part of the book, entitled ‘Nouveaux objets, nouvelles frontières’ [New objects, new boundaries], introduced by Catherine Achin and Catherine Marry, presents seven studies with contrasting objects of study, disciplinary approaches, and geographical contexts. Cécile Guillaume and Gill Kirton show how gender constructs inequalities between women working in the same sector (prison administration in Great Britain) in the context of policies of restructuring and austerity which impact the lives of women both working in and using public services. According to Iman Karzabi and Séverine Lemière, public policies aimed at enhancing women’s access to employment must be reinforced and must take into account the effects of violence experienced beginning early in life on school investment and access to employment, as well as violence suffered at work. Taking a longitudinal approach across several generations of female workers in a Shanghai factory, Tang Xiaojing examines the supposed benefits of the Great Leap Forward for women’s emancipation in work and the family. Next, Rebecca Rogers brings her historian’s gaze to bear on needlework training for young women in colonial Algeria; she describes how this training ‘undermined gender norms’ (p. 163) by opening up access to paid work. Hyacinthe Ravet shows how the focus has shifted from the study of women within different artistic spheres towards gendered analysis both of artistic professions and of barriers to entry into them. Amélie Le Renard’s chapter draws on studies she carried out in Dubai and Riyadh, which show how analysing the articulation of nationality with relations of gender, class, and ‘race’ can shed light on the processes that produce structural advantage in a globalized world. Audrey Lenoël and Ariane Pailhé describe the perspectives opened up by the analysis of the activity of ‘women who stayed in the [home] country’—the wives of migrant workers—and explain the challenges of collecting appropriate data on these situations.

6The third part of the collection, on ‘Work, Gender, and Feminism’, presents six texts that focus on theoretical issues in research on work and gender. In their introduction to this section, Isabelle Clair and Jacqueline Laufer write that the presence of the term feminist in the book’s subtitle reflects a process of legitimization of critical feminist perspectives in the academic field. The same goes for the recognition of the ‘seriousness’ of gender studies on work, migration, family relationships, violence, etc., as well as the critical and reflective dimensions of many studies such as those presented in the book.

7Drawing on her own research on women’s work in working-class environments, notably home care workers, Christelle Avril presents an empirical critique of the ‘successful concept’ of care. Nathalie Lapeyre shows how the naturalization of ‘qualities’ transformed into ‘skills’ orients women towards various support functions, and she observes that the sexualization of the female body constitutes a greater obstacle for workers and technicians than for engineers or managers. Adopting an intersectional and postcolonial perspective, Kamala Marius addresses the question of women’s empowerment through work in South India, and Michel Lallement analyses the gendered effects of the digital revolution on the status of women at work and on their professional identity. Danièle Kergoat emphasizes the centrality of work as a concept in gender studies and its paradigmatic quality. Laure Bereni explains the usefulness of the ‘space of the cause of women’ as a category for affirming a critical sociology of feminist movements and underlining their heterogeneity.

8In her conclusion to the book, Nicky Le Feuvre emphasizes the need to admit the ambivalence of ‘the promotion of women’s autonomy and gender equality as it emerges in individualist societies’. We must also accept, she argues, that in order to better understand how women are called upon today to free themselves from the normative foundations of gender, we must take into account the new fault lines as well as intersectionality in the ‘post-Fordist world order’ (p. 275). The book surveys a vast range of findings and theoretical advances, but the contributions also show that much remains to be done and that the focus on women remains important, as Michelle Perrot points out in the epilogue: ‘the fragility of women’s work persists’ in the face of rigidities in hierarchical domination and forms of harassment, of differences in wages and working hours, and of technical and communicational transformations—all areas where research must continue.


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    Notably: Les nouvelles frontières de l’inégalité: Hommes et femmes sur le marché du travail (1998); Femmes, genre, sociétés: L’état des savoirs (2005); collections edited by Margaret Maruani and published by Éditions de La Découverte.
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