In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminization of Labor in Academia

  • Introduction
  • Definitions and Conceptions of Feminization of Work
  • Quantitative Feminization of Academic Workforce and Its Contradictions
  • Gendered Aspects of Feminized Academic Work
  • Feminization in Social Movements and Academic Labor Activism

Education Feminization of Labor in Academia
Aslı Vatansever
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0302


A comprehensive review of the feminization discourse within labor studies reveals a great diversity of conceptions. The term “feminization” is connected to multiple intersectional issues in labor, including gender inequality, labor devaluation, gendered notions and divisions of work, shifts in the composition of the workforce, and persisting power structures despite changing demographics. Initially, feminization was used in the quantitative sense to refer to an increase in women’s formal employment. Qualitative and critical framings of the term, on the other hand, pertain to the type of employment contract and/or the labor process. They highlight forced flexibility, low pay, and precariousness, all of which have historically been associated with women’s work. As such, qualitative usages of feminization in the labor context often connote the disadvantages that women have been facing in the labor market. Interventions to broaden the analytical scope of the term and emphasize its positive connotations have mostly come from feminist scholarship. Affirmative framings of feminization highlight the dialectical aspect, arguing that feminized work incites feminized resistance practices characterized by horizontal structures and a therapeutic-reparative mode of action. These conceptualizations rearticulate the relational and affective traits that are traditionally associated with female subjectivities and are now argued to inspire a distinct mode of collective action, especially in sectors dominated by precarious employment and lack of organized labor. In the extant literature on academic work, qualitative connotations of feminization pertaining to the casualization of contracts, devaluation of academic work, and intensification of the academic labor process mostly prevail. Academic work has evidently become feminized both in the sense of increased female participation and labor devaluation in recent decades. However, empirical research also demonstrates contradictions, ranging from a persisting lack of female faculty in the upper echelons to an unequal gendered distribution of precarity among different segments of the academic workforce. Female researchers are argued to continue being disadvantaged via multiple mechanisms. Recent feminist scholarship draws particular attention to the masculinized ideals of hyper-competitive performance that demand the researchers to be free of domestic care duties. The feminization of academic work, in turn, is argued to call upon a “feminized” mode of labor activism in academia, which suggests nonhierarchical and counter-hegemonic solidary collectivities and less outcome-obsessed modes of action—i.e., an activism that derives from the repertoire of affective qualities attributed to the historical construct of the “feminine.”

Definitions and Conceptions of Feminization of Work

“Feminization” is a broad term with various qualitative and quantitative connotations, as Guy Standing remarks in his overview, Standing 1999. Initially, the term was coined to signify a demographic shift in certain sectors toward a female domination and/or the concentration of certain social phenomena like poverty or exclusion among the female population. Jenson, et al. 1988 represents a major work in the former line, depicting women’s increased participation in wage-work from the postwar era onward. The latter aspect, on the other hand, was emphasized in Diana Pearce’s usage of “feminization of poverty” in 1978, to whom the coining of the term is attributed (Chant 2012). Contrary to the overenthusiastic predictions of the last quarter of the twentieth century, women’s increasing participation in the economy did not lead to a corresponding increase in women in leadership roles (Wajcman 2006). Since its coinage by Marilyn Loden in 1978 during a panel discussion about women’s aspirations, the term “glass ceiling” has been widely used to describe the structural and cultural barriers to career advancement women continue to face in various sectors (Loden 2017). Feminization in the qualitative sense, on the other hand, refers to two different yet interrelated aspects that are seen as historically typical for women’s work: (a) contractually precarious, financially devalued, and socially low-status; and (b) emotionally taxing and submission-demanding. The former dimension pertains to the widely evidenced gender-based pay gap in many contexts, including high-income countries like the United Kingdom and Germany (Perales 2010; Klammer, et al. 2018). It is argued that, through extensive deregulation and labor market informalization in the neoliberal era, poorly paid and insecure employment hitherto associated with women’s work have now become the norm for wider segments of the workforce (Phizacklea and Wolkowitz 1995). The latter dimension referring to the emotional demands attached to women’s work emphasizes the growing significance of interpersonal and psycho-emotional skills in the labor process, often to the detriment of the workers who are authoritatively required to perform unpaid emotional labor and care work. Cristina Morini’s take on cognitive capitalism as a regime of accumulation, in which the “female experiential baggage” seems to be on higher demand, follows this argument (see Morini 2007). In some sectors, specifically in the domestic work sector, the dimensions of devaluation and affectivization converge, as Gutierrez-Rodriguez 2014 demonstrates. Earlier precursors of these approaches can be found in Marxist feminist works, including Federici 1975, that have questioned the naturalization of domestic roles and emphasized how the naturalization of emotional and care duties has been utilized to convince women into taking up care work and housework as their essential calling. Following from there, more recent works argue that overwork, over-identification, and self-exploitation are now being forced upon creative/intellectual workers as a natural part of their vocation in a similar fashion (hence the feminization in these sectors; see Gill and Pratt 2008). The emphasis on love, passion, and intrinsic motivation is seen as integral to feminization, as it is reminiscent of how unpaid and self-exploitative domestic work has hitherto been justified with the argument of an alleged emotional satisfaction on women’s part.

  • Chant, S. 2012. Feminization of poverty. In The Blackwell encyclopedia of sociology. Edited by George Ritzer. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470670590.wbeog202

    A compact summary of the term “feminization of poverty” and its different connotations.

  • Federici, S. 1975. Wages against housework. London: Falling Wall Press.

    Federici’s canonical work on unpaid, unrecognized domestic work and its political implications for women and the entire working class.

  • Gill, R., and A. C. Pratt. 2008. In the social factory? Immaterial labor, precariousness and cultural work. Theory, Culture, and Society 25.7–8: 1–30.

    DOI: 10.1177/0263276408097794

    This article deals with precariousness in cultural sectors, with particular attention to the distinctive features of cultural work, such as intrinsic motivation and the primacy of passion, that turn the creative class into a new model of self-exploiting entrepreneurs.

  • Gutierrez-Rodriguez, E. 2014. Domestic work—affective labor: On feminization and the coloniality of labor. Women’s Studies International Forum 46:45–53.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.wsif.2013.07.009

    This article emphasizes the relationship between feminization and coloniality, as paid domestic work and immigration policies often intersect, and insists on conceptualizing domestic work as affective labor.

  • Jenson J., E. Hagen, and C. Reddy, eds. 1988. Feminization of the labor force: Paradoxes and promises. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive historical account of how quantitative feminization took place in North America and Western Europe.

  • Klammer, U., C. Klenner, and S. Lillemeier. 2018. Comparable worth: Arbeitsbewertungen als blinder Fleck in der Ursachenanalyse des Gender Pay Gaps? Düsseldorf: Hans-Böckler-Stiftung.

    Klammer et al. present a summary of their study on the gender-based pay gap in the German context and conclude that the female labor force in Germany continues to face systematic disadvantages vis-à-vis their male counterparts with the same qualifications The authors have created a new instrument—the CW index—to compare the value of work and demonstrate the influence of gender on pay.

  • Loden, M. 2017. 100 Women: “Why I invented the glass ceiling phrase.”. BBC News, 13 December.

    Loden recalls the emergence of the term “glass ceiling” and reflects on its continuing relevance in view of persisting gender inequalities in the workplace. An illuminating revisit of a widely used and perpetually relevant term.

  • Morini, C. 2007. The feminization of labor in cognitive capitalism. Feminist Review 87: 40–59.

    DOI: 10.1057/

    Departing from the increased predominance of atypical work in Italy and elsewhere, Morini shows how cognitive capitalism demands experiential and emotional facilities traditionally associated with the historical experience of women.

  • Perales, F. 2010. Occupational feminization, specialized human capital and wages: Evidence from the British labor market. ISER Working Paper Series no. 2010–31. Colchester, UK: Univ. of Essex, Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER).

    This article shows the continued gender-based wage gap despite the quantitative increase in women’s participation in wage-work.

  • Phizacklea, A., and C Wolkowitz. 1995. Homeworking women: Gender, racism and class at work. London: SAGE.

    An account of how labor market deregulations led to an expansion of feminized (i.e., low-paid, precarious, and informal) jobs.

  • Standing, G. 1999. Global feminization through flexible labor: A theme revisited. World Development 27.3: 583–602.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0305-750X(98)00151-X

    Standing’s classical take gives a broad overview of the different usages and connotations of “feminization” in labor studies.

  • Wajcman, J. 2006. The feminization of work in the information age. In Women, gender and technology. Edited by M. F. Fox, D. G. Johnson, and S. V. Rosser, 80–97. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    A critical revisiting of optimistic expectations on quantitative feminization against the backdrop of the Information Society.

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