Sister Writes: The Work Issue is a research creation project that illuminates the hidden experiences and contributions of women working in Toronto’s service industry. From hotel housekeepers to restaurant cooks, bottle collectors to baristas, retail workers to call centre clerks, women in Toronto’s service industry perform important and challenging work. But their stories, and the inequalities they face due to the systemic devaluation of women’s labour, often go unspoken.
We wanted to change that. Drawing on methodologies in community arts education and arts for social justice, we designed the project to combine art and activism through storytelling. From 2017 – 2019, Sister Writes mounted free creative writing workshops at the Bloor-Gladstone Library in downtown Toronto. At these workshops, women learned writing techniques from professional authors, crafted narratives, collaborated with peers and editors, and polished their stories for publication. The resulting anthology, edited by Lauren Kirshner, is now on sale in bookstores across Canada.
Why write about women’s work? Given that 82% of Canadian women participate in the paid workforce, the term “women’s work” might seem archaic. Yet inequality rages on. Canadian women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Women are overrepresented in fields traditionally associated with their gender, like health care, retail, food services, and hospitality. And most precarious and minimum wage workers are women. In fact, one third of Canadian women earn less than $15 an hour.
We were inspired by the pathbreaking work of Studs Terkel, whose 1973 oral history classic Working collected stories of American workers and drew attention to inequality under capitalism. We wanted to find out what women had to say about doing service work in a local Toronto context today. How does precarious work shape women’s lives? What makes women workers proud? What makes them feel demoralised? What needs to change? The Work Issue answers these questions with 20 diverse, real-life stories that tackle the gender wage gap, racism, workplace harassment, emotional labour, language barriers and more.
Our hope is that The Work Issue offers readers insight into the intersectional experiences of women working in industries where inequality persists. While each story is unique in subject matter and style, many writers describe feeling inadequate, comprised, and undervalued, but still manage to take pride in surviving challenging work situations and, sometimes, to confront injustice. By writing about these issues, the writers hope to open the door for change.
The Work Issue was generously supported by a Ryerson University Faculty of Arts Creative grant and provided an experiential learning opportunity for a number of Ryerson students. The companion to the anthology is this short documentary voiced by the writers and co-created by Lauren Kirshner and Francesca Awotundun. We hope you enjoy it.
To learn more about The Work Issue, visit our blog, or to buy an issue, please consult our magazines page.