In 1945, Gertrude Williams published Women and Work (part of the New Democracy Series, Nicholson and Watson, London), questioning ‘women’s place’ in the post-war industrial world in which many ‘cherished prejudices have been turned topsy-turvy’ (1945: 9). I came across a copy of this book for the first time just a few weeks ago, and was amazed to see such a wealth of photographs of women working (65 in total) and the use of ‘13 pictorial charts in colour designed by the Isotype Institute’. (The International System of TYpographic Picture Education is an interesting story in itself – see for instance, Isotype Revisited.)

According to Williams, the Isotype charts used in the book are ‘not introduced for decoration, though their colours do certainly enliven the page’. She continues: ‘if you look at them with attention you will find that they suggest all sorts of relationships between different bits of our complex society that probably would not jump so vividly into your mind simply from looking at rows of figures or reading descriptions of facts’ (1945: 10). Visual sociology in a nutshell!

The charts that stuck me most were two entitled, ‘The Changing Home’. The first, immediately below, represents a pre-industrial world in which the home is centre-stage. With the establishment of schools, and the extension of production including food production beyond the home and for more than subsistence needs, there is an overlap in what takes place ‘Inside the Home’ and ‘Outside the Home’ by the ‘19th Century’.

In the second chart (below), the first half is devoted to ‘Today’ (as in 1945). There is a strict and persistent gendered division of labour and recognition of work performed in different socio-economic modes and spatial contexts inside and outside the home: childcare and education, cooking and baking, laundry, making clothes, and food production. What is especially fascinating is Williams’ exploratory representation of ‘The future?’ (in the second half of the chart below) imagined in a context of the scarcity of workers (1945: 110-111). It shows an ever-increasing shift to all activities (except cleaning) taking place outside of the home, with men and women equally positioned in the public sphere. We might also read her chart to imply that the vacuum cleaner is an autonomous object, the agent as well as the instrument of its work!

What we now know is that there are many combinations of the activities in Williams’ charts taking place as paid or unpaid work inside or outside of the home, as formal employment or as informal activities undertaken by friends, family or voluntary workers (Glucksmann, 1995, 2005). Perhaps what Williams didn’t fully anticipate was the complexity and variety of these relations – or the ongoing gender segregation in who does what, wherever it takes place.

1. Glucksmann, M. (2005). ‘Shifting boundaries and interconnections: extending the “total social organisation of labour”’, in L. Pettinger, J. Parry, R.F. Taylor and M. Glucksmann (editors) A New Sociology of Work? Oxford and Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing/The Sociological Review.
2. Glucksmann, M. (1995). ‘Why “Work”? Gender and the “Total Social Organisation of Labour”’, Gender, Work and Organization 2(2): 63-75.
3. Williams, G. (1945) Women and Work, London: Nicholson and Watson.