On “Work” – Feminism in the 21st century

One of the questions I most dread being asked is, “What do you do?” The majority of people would have a quick and short reply to that – “I’m an engineer”; “I work for the government”; “I’m a student”; “I work at <company X> as a <position title>.” Even my husband has his standard “I’m a software engineer at <company X>.” But for me, this question raises not only existential anxieties, but also makes me contemplate the very nature of what is, and is not, considered worthwhile “work”.

In modern use of language, the question of what one does is normally to inquire about a person’s occupation – more specifically, what they do to earn money. As a 30-year-old millennial woman in the era of fourth-wave feminism, this question carries even more weight as I now feel the pressure to demonstrate how I am empowering myself and breaking free from the age old shackles of “patriarchal oppression”, and there is no better way to instantly communicate that than by counting myself among the ranks of highly educated, capable, and successfully employed women who are “breaking glass ceilings” and carving trail-blazing careers for themselves in all sorts of traditional and non-traditional jobs.

Because Sai is a developer for one of the biggest tech companies in Canada, many people I get to meet through him are very career-oriented and driven, including women. Recently we went to a houseparty at one of his co-worker’s place and several people from his office were also there, including three women who worked as designers and engineers at their company. After we were all introduced and it was established I was not employed where everyone else was, I was eventually asked by one of the women, “So what do you do?”

My ideal answer to that question would be, “I do whatever I want.” Since that’s considered too crass, I’d elaborate a bit more: “I do a bunch of different things. I write. I teach. I model. I cook. I’m self-employed, but I do not have a traditional job, nor do I work traditional hours. The most important things for me in life are to feel like what I do has value and contributes to my overall sense of purpose. I’m not following a typical career trajectory in any one job, and most of the things I do don’t pay me the kind of regular salary many people depend on to live their lives. I’m a home-maker who values her close relationships in life over everything else.”

I fear this answer would leave people even more perplexed. What do I mean when I say I write? Am I a writer? Who do I teach – high school students? Do I model on runways or for magazine catalogues? Do I cook for pleasure at home, or is it a paid gig at a restaurant or cafe or culinary school? How can I do all these things at the same time? Do I work four different part-time jobs? What do I mean when I call myself a ‘home-maker’? Am I just glorifying my status as an unemployed housewife who depends on her husband’s income? All this becomes even more confusing when it’s revealed I have a B.Sc. in microbiology.

I understand the emphasis on defining oneself through their work or profession. Work gives us meaning; it establishes our status in society, allows us to move from one social class to another, provides a means to earn money and sustain one’s lifestyle. In this day and age, our jobs and subsequent careers are the focal points of our lives. It’s why we go to school, study hard, try to get into the best universities and work for the best firms and companies. In the past, work was primarily the domain of men as they were the sole breadwinners of a household. Things are much different now, and women have the options to pursue careers that were once only available to men. Traditional work has, as far as I can tell, become the driving force to characterize success for both men and women in this increasingly equitable society. Women now define themselves with the same labels as men, whereas in the not so distant past, those labels would have been confined to “mother”, “wife”, “secretary”, etc.

None of this is bad. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been born and grow up in a time of human history where I could be in control of my life and my decisions and not be considered an outcast for pursuing paths in life that, due to my gender, may have been looked down upon for a woman. I have made full use of the freedom and liberties available to a young woman like myself – I moved out for university when I was 19; paid for it all myself through part-time jobs, scholarships, and loans; worked abroad before I had even graduated; backpacked through South-East Asia in my early-20s, all while having complete autonomy of where and how I spent my money. I didn’t need anyone’s approval or input before I decided what I wanted to do. I dated who I wanted and was in charge of how I used my body. Growing up female in the 21st century has been rad for me, and much of the progress made by women to achieve all this has been very recent.

When I was an undergrad in my early-20s, I thought I would have a typical 9-5 job after graduation. I’d go to an office or a firm, wear “work clothes”, mingle with colleagues and slowly build a career in a field I felt I wanted to pursue, and somewhere along that I would find a guy, get married and have a family, but my primary focus would be my job. It was either that, or get married right out of school, become a stay-at-home baby making machine and lose all autonomy over my life, time, and money. Since I was a strong, independent, empowered woman who didn’t need a man to take care of her, the second option was out of the question. That there could have been a third option, a middle path between those two extremes, was something that never once crossed my mind.

…continued in part 2