The boundaries of care
The boundaries of care

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The boundaries of care

4 Women's work

Gender and power play a role in keeping issues like this out of the public arena. One reason for women's comparative silence in our culture is that more of what they do is defined as ‘private’ or ‘personal’. Things they talk about are often downgraded – being deemed unimportant, boring or inappropriate. When large and difficult areas of experience are left out of public discussion we need to ask why. Ignoring the experience of certain groups of people is a way of exercising power over them. It allows their points of view and their needs to slip off the agenda. Women and members of minority ethnic groups have protested against being treated in this way. But it is an experience shared by carers and users of services (Pascall, 1986, p. 30, and Brown and Smith, 1989, p. 108 make this link).

Beyond the fact that women have tasks to do which are defined as not worth discussing, is the fact that women do seem to be given roles in dealing with and containing feelings, and particularly sexual feelings. This is true in care settings and also in other work such as shop work where ‘the customer is always right’, or in reception where the receptionist is always welcoming and on display. Women workers often have to manage the way they present themselves and control their emotional reactions. This is particularly so in care work, when they are dealing with intimate or intrusive procedures. In 1983, Hochschild introduced the idea of 'emotional labour'. It is hard work, partly because it is not made explicit or rewarded. In fact, you only see it is part of the expectations of the job if you stop doing it. Hochschild's work was with air hostesses, who have to put on a brave (and usually very well made up) face and be ‘nice’ to passengers no matter how obnoxious they are back. Similarly, carers have to be open to all the people in their care whether or not they ‘like’ them or find them easy to look after. If ‘the customer is always right’, it makes it very difficult to know when you can draw the line, for example in relation to sexual or racial harassment from users. If the customer is always right it is often at the expense of women workers.

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