'A woman's work is never done'

a black and white photograph, five women standing by a large open oven.

A history of women's working lives in Europe

Larissa Borck (opens in new window)

Long before the home office was invented, working at home was already commonplace for one group within society: women.

Even today, unpaid and care tasks at home are still often perceived as women's work - or not appreciated for the hard work it is. In order to discover the reasons behind today's inequalities in the workplaces of men and women, this blog takes a closer look at women's work history in Europe.

a painting, a woman who is sewing sits in a chair in a room while another woman stands nearby.

When we look back at the history of work, there is often a bias towards work performed by men.

Women have been historically depicted as housewives, engaging in crafts or occupied as mothers. Although this might have been accurate for parts of European societies in the past, it only accounts for wealthy elites. Until industrialisation, the majority of Europe's population worked in agriculture, and women were just as involved in working on farms as men.

a black and white photograph, interior of a shop with people in front and behind the counter.

How did the industrial revolution change women's working lives?

The industrial revolution changed women's working lives greatly.

Working in shifts for a salary and in locations such as a factory, office or shop became part of modern life. Young, unmarried or working-class women especially moved to cities to work in the growing industries. Education played a major role for women entering the workforce, with an increasing percentage of girls attending school during the 20th century

As they earned less than men and were not unionised, employers often considered women to be attractive workers. At the same time, women worked in their homes, for example in piecework, where they were only paid for each completed piece, or in assembling pieces such as copper coils. 

Thus, women carried a double burden: they had to take care of children, elder family members, and the household - work that was not paid and hidden in private spaces. And they contributed to the family’s income with their paid work.

As these jobs were often located at home, part-time, casual or even illegal, records on female work are not as reliable and well-documented as men’s labour.

a black and white photograph, a woman and child in a kitchen.

Until industrial, urban work became normal, men had not been idealised as the sole providers for the family. As more women entered the workforce, women became idealised as a counterpart to men. The married woman, taking care of her family and the household, not engaging in paid work, became the social ideal - although most female biographies were different.

As legislation developed to regulate women and children’s working hours and ban them from especially dangerous tasks, the role of men as sole wage earners was gradually reinforced during the 19th century.

a painting, women working in a weapons factory.

These ideals were considered normal by the turn of the 20th century: women were perceived as the opposite sex, weaker and of finer nature than men, with natural abilities in care work. As mothers and wives, the private home sphere became their domain; the public sphere belonged to men. 

In contrast to these ideals, women were needed in the workforce, especially in times of war. Still, these cannot be seen as emancipatory. 

Jobs in temporary factories for weapons or other materials needed in the battlefields meant working in dangerous circumstances, for low wages and in many nations, women’s service to their nations was rapidly neglected after both World War I and World War II - and they were driven out of their employment after the men came back.

a black and white photograph, four women stand behind a table laid with food.

How did women's working lives change after World War II?

After World War II, the situation for women in Western and Eastern Europe was quite different.

Some nations, such as Germany, experienced a wave of conservatism, where women were expected to fulfill roles as housewives and mothers. At the same time, there was also a progressive movement with women entering the workforce with more and more equal rights, for example in Scandinavia. In the new political systems in Eastern Europe, women were formally equal to men and expected to work in paid employment. 

In all cases, the home was still often perceived as the domain of women and all household tasks from child-rearing to cleaning and cooking as women’s work. They continued to carry the double burden - with paid and unpaid, visible and invisible work.

a colour photograph, a row of women carrying red flags.

Resulting from the difficult heritage of work circumstances for women, even today, there are still striking inequalities for women at the workplace.

In 2018, women in the European Union earned an average 16% less than men. Nevertheless, if including unpaid work, they work six hours longer than men. More than half of women have experienced workplace harassment or sexual violence. 73% of Europeans say that women spend more time on household and caring tasks than men. Women are promoted less, in part because they tend to take more career breaks to care for children or family members.

Because of this life-long gender discrimination, women face a higher risk of poverty in old age, receiving pensions that are a third smaller than men. 

So although a lot has changed for women at work, there's still a lot to be done in order to achieve equality, at work, at home and beyond.

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.