Monday, December 5, 2011

The Metaphor of the Octopus Worker

Being from the United States where work is mostly about money and where organized labor is frequently demonized, when traveling it's quite refreshing to encounter museums devoted to workers. One such museum is Copenhagen's Arbejdermuseet (Workers' Museum). Among the many stimulating items is a plate from the early 1970s depicting a woman who needs eight arms to juggle all of her responsibilities--taking care of her family, tending to her house and household chores, and working outside the home, all with a smile. In the Workers' Museum, this is described as an octopus woman. I was able to find out that this provocative image was used by the Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund (Female Workers Confederation) as part of their fight for equal pay in Denmark in the early 1970s, but it speaks to me today on many levels.


Of course there is the important level of the continuing need to fully respect work done in the home as just that--work. Unpaid care work is work that can be hard, but also rewarding; work that contributes to our families, communities, and economies, and that should be valued because of these contributions, rather than devalued because it does not directly earn a paycheck.

On another level, this image can also be a metaphor for work more generally. What is work? Too often work is looked at as only one thing, specifically as just a way to earn a living. This is not only unduly narrow, it is destructive. Seeing work only in this way means that job quality is reduced to the dollars and cents on a paycheck, and the bidding down of wages and benefits in a global economy is seen as a natural course of events than cannot be checked. When work is thought of as only about money, it creates a culture where it is necessary and acceptable to closely monitor, supervise, and incentivize employees. This is captured by another object in the Workers' Museum--a clipboard with a built-in stopwatch used by managers to break work down into simple, repetitive, mindless tasks.

In my recent book, The Thought of Work (Cornell University Press, 2011), I try to fight the "one best way" approach to thinking about work that frequently dominates not only public and private policies on work, but also scholarly research. While we need to guard against work becoming all-consuming--the octopus woman image also demonstrates how easy it is to become overburdened by work--I try to embrace the metaphor of the octopus woman by recognizing and valuing work as many things. When we work, we do more than earn a living, we also create, care for, and serve others. We hopefully derive some satisfaction, but also a deeper understanding of our own identities. It is time for researchers to do a better job talking with each other across disciplinary lines, and more importantly, it is time for social norms as well as private and public policies on work to truly embrace work's fundamental importance.

Note: I initially published this entry on the No Way to Make a Living blog, September 2011.

26 comments:

  1. Thanks for this article. He allowed me to resolve some questions about the causes of why the work cannot be reduced to monetary aspect.

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  2. I'm so happy that you mentioned the housewife as a unpaid worker because I am one of these women and I hope that someday we may get the chance to be highlighted from the society and the governments as you did.

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  3. i appreciate the article because it shows that housewives are great workers whose work is usually overlooked and not considered work.

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  4. i appreciate the article because it shows that housewives are great workers whose work is usually overlooked and not considered work.

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  5. Thanks for this article. He allowed me to resolve some questions about the causes of why the work cannot be reduced to monetary aspect.

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  6. There is some similarity of the picture with Goddess Durga in Hinduism where the women form is seen as all powerful. Still women here are expected to do much more work than men, even if they are in a white collar job. We really need to recognize and appreciate the unpaid work they do in care giving.

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  7. I appreciate this article. It is still interesting to me that women and work is still in the dark ages. Unpaid work needs to be appreciated the same as paid work especially when women in many cultures are expected to stay home to care for the children and household.

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  8. This article highlights along with many reasons why we work, the way women are treated in the society. Despite their ability to multitask their credibility is questioned when they take a career break and decide to join the workforce again. Thanks for this wonderful article which will surely encourage people to think from a caregiver's perspective as well.

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  9. This article highlights some fundamental truths about women's roles which are often overlooked, particularly , at homes. Unpaid work should really be recognized somehow , particularly , where women are concerned.As a HR Manager , I am now challenged to appreciate women at homes who ensure their husbands are properly fed and cared for to continue working for us.Thank you for this article.

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  10. Very heart touching. It is the women, who can bear and confront all these. Doing so much work all around with selflessness need appreciation of each and everyone from the bottom of our heart. Women are the nice gift of God having lot of strength in themselves. Her dedications and love for work whether paid or unpaid, whether household or outside at workplace can not be measured with any kind out weight. It is something beyond Extrinsic or Intrinsic motivation.

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  11. Very true, I think in a way we the human have learned about survival skills first and that could be why we put too much value on work for pay, and disregard the unpaid work that contributes insmensly to our society, specially the work of wives and mothers, without them there would be not be a working social system. Women's household work is divine.

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  12. I liked the article, but what really stood out was the image of the octopus woman and notice it shows her having to scratch the chin of a man? With todays society I think it holds true today in many cases but with less frequency than back in the 70's.

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  13. This article captures my fancy. I agree that the women in our society are extraordinary people - putting in the much effort they do into their daily work and can still afford to smile. It would be the right thing for unpaid housework to be rewarded and not be devalued. It is work anyway you look at it. It is energy consuming and result achieving. Its time women's work in work places are valued as much as men's are.
    Secondly like you rightly said in the article, 'seeing work as just a way to earn a living or when work is thought of as only about money is destructive' indeed. If this was the case, worker's self esteem would be undermined and without social integration, and no one will enjoy working. If all eyes were on the reward of wages, would endure harsh treatment and disregard; while also disregarding how one treats other colleagues. Then people would be overworked, stressed and work would not be enjoyed.

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  14. Its a new thinking to me to consider work in its various meanings but more importantly that reducing work to commensurate pay isn't doing justice to the broad concept of what work is and should be looked at.

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  15. I appreciate this article where you respect the woman who stay at home for the kids and better living of the family. In many culture this has been devalued where woman staying at home has been called as housewives and not consider as respectable. On the contrary woman's going out for work are consider as successful. Being a woman, I have great respect towards the woman who work and at the same time manage the family but, those woman's who leaves there professional life for the family deserves same respect.

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  16. Beautiful piece Prof, yes working solely for money could be disastrous no matter the nature of the job. Some level of individual desire to sacrifice for the common good of others is very important. The work women do at home ideally is unquantifiable, so I doubt if it can actually get a fair pay. I think the best satisfaction is seeing the fruit of their labor in the success of their children, and seeing that the home is welcoming.

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  17. I really like this article, where women's housework is being looked at as a valuable work. A caring work and a Labor of Love, etc. In many cultures, both housework and caring jobs which dominantly women occupy are looked down upon and very under-valued, not well paid. Because of gender inequality, women are stratified into these jobs, which like the Prof said is not really a biological role. I advocate that women who do home work of taking care of the family should be adequately valued and compensated as well as the other occupations classified as men's domain. Even the professional women are also condemned. Infact I am happy someone is advocating for better treatment of women working at home as care givers and those also those working in the offices. Furthermore, gender discrimination of all manners should be totally eradicated in society. Thank you Professor.

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  19. ''It is time for researchers to do a better job talking with each other across disciplinary lines, and more importantly, it is time for social norms as well as private and public policies on work to truly embrace work's fundamental importance.'' Thank you Professor!

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  20. I agree each individual needs to feel fulfilled in different levels. Money for decent living is important but for us to be happy and fulfilled we need to feel our creative talent to be recognised we care and take care of our own families and also our community and society at large..

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  21. This is a good awareness raiser, one that I'll plan to share with those I have the pleasure of working for.

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  22. I really appreciated how this article not only brought out the importance of what women do in the home, but also how some women multitask work at home, the work for the family, and the job, etc. it really could go on and on. Thank you for recognizing it.

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  23. very insightful article. Being a woman, I still feel that our modern and western society still needs to appreciate more women that have to stay at home to look after the children. Most of the times, their 'work' is underestimated, as they not have a salary and they are still contributing to their society... Indeed, some are like an octopus, being able too multi task, but is the remuneration that needs to be put in place to equally be appreciated. No doubt this is a very sensitive and complex matter.

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