The committed worker: class, gender and the value of childcare work

2017-02-23T04:22:54Z (GMT) by Andrew, Yarrow
This thesis examines how childcare work is impacted by patterns of value associated with social class and gender. The research contributes knowledge about the lived experiences of workers, and their perceptions of the status and meaning of childcare work. It draws upon a feminist Bourdieusian theoretical framework to show how gendered and classed inequalities reinforce each other within the childcare field in Australia. Data for this study are semi-structured interviews conducted with twenty-three female workers across six metropolitan childcare centres, and one focus-group discussion. I analyse what the views of this particular cohort of workers reveal about a distinctive form of women’s work, building on insights from feminist research on carework, reproductive labour and mothering, as well as cultural approaches to class analysis. I situate this analysis within the current political focus on childcare in Australia, and the high expectations for the field in remedying various forms of disadvantage. The thesis is informed by research on childcare within other minority-world nations, while acknowledging the specific classed and gendered cultures that inform the views of these Australian workers. The central findings of the research are that childcare is significantly devalued, materially and culturally, and that workers contest this lack of value in ways that currently go unrecognised. I find that committed workers within the field invest in a form of expertise that differs from current dominant-class expectations of childcare work, and suggest that this expertise functions as a form of capital within Australian childcare settings. This expertise reflects practical wisdom developed as a result of the constraints imposed by classed and gendered inequalities. I argue that the skills of the committed worker yield little symbolic capital beyond the field, and so offer use-value for workers rather than exchange-value. I demonstrate that the key to the expertise of the committed worker is investment in emotional capital, and its contribution to pedagogical insight, stress-management and relational awareness. The result is a worker who understands the complex and ethical nature of childcare work and its value to society. This research vitally extends knowledge about the childcare field and the contribution made by workers to the various benefits that quality childcare brings to society; reducing class-based inequality, supporting families and facilitating women’s workforce participation. These findings challenge accepted wisdom about the value of childcare work, showing its emotional and relational complexity, and the ethical stance that is at the heart of the work. I conclude that the identified value of the work to society, the existing exploitation of the workforce, and the stresses on the childcare system provide good arguments for better economic and cultural recognition of this important work.