Saturday, June 16, 2007


Capitalism has not served women well. It does not matter much whether you are a feminist or not. You may believe that the prime opposition is one fundamentally of gender (and that all further opposition emerge from that), or one of economics and class, or whatever ; one merely has to face facts. There remins a dramatic inequality of income between the sexes, and nothing essential changes about the expectations of a woman's role in the family.

It is more than 50 years since Simone de Beauvoir wrote this:

We are told that femininity is in danger ; we are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women. It would appear then that every female human being is not necessarily a woman ; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination? Is a rustling petticoat enough to bring it down to earth?

This could have been written yesterday. The glamour model captures woman's divided subjectivity perfectly. It is not what she looks like which gives her an allure, but how she looks, and specifically how her look makes the male observer feel. The reader of Zoo Magazine can have his ego massaged by the doe-eyed teen who, having been objectified, in turn objectifies him. He gazes at the model who gazes back at him. This is not new : images of naked women, from the high-art nude through to the girly-mag pin-up, show woman being submissive, yet quite inaccessible.

The objectification of women by men (however much the image of a woman might sometimes emasculate the male viewer, the relationship is nonetheless always that of male-viewer and female-viewed) will manifest itself in all areas of life. Most men nowadays don't object to women working, but many will disparage the career woman. There is something about the idea of women as direct competitors which deeply unsettles men. On the face of it, much has been accomplished for "women's right" since de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex. Women have entered the workplace, have achieved economic independence and, according to the law, they are the equals of their male colleagues. There is flexibility which might allow a woman to fulfil the dual role of breadwinner and mother successfully : there are female role models to prove it.

Yet, according to a new report from the Equal Opportunities Commission, "more than 30 years after the Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay women less for doing the same job, a 17% gender pay gap in full-time hourly earnings still exists. For part-time workers the full-time hourly pay-gap is 38%." It is significant that the gap is most marked for part-time work : what remains decidedly unchanged since The Second Sex is the expectation that women will raise families, and women who do so will be more likely to seek part-time work. This expectation is driven by economic reality : if women stopped having children, our exponential populations and economies would collapse. But there is another economic reality by which women must abide : if they do not work, our economies will also be unsustainable.

Traditionally, women's work has been thought of as the five C's : cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work. These are considered the natural preserve of women, jobs which, while they may not pay as well as "men's work," fit nicely into women's lives and offer them "a bit of independence." In the past, progressive policy-makers have attempted to move women out of these kinds of jobs and into other areas of work, as though the low rates of pay in the five C's are inherent rather than generated by the predominance of women. But this has resulted in the rates of pay in those other areas of work which women have entered and come to dominate decreasing too :

The entry of women into occupations such as banking and teaching - both once male preserves - has been associated with a lowering over time of their pay and status.


Between 1991 and 2000 the average pay of male bank managers declined relative to the overall median pay by 50% at the same time as the proportion of bank managers who were women increased from 1 in 5 to more than 1 in 3.


Working in a female-dominated occupation is more detrimental to your pay level than being a woman per se.

A care assistance, for instance, will earn, on average, £7.61 per hour, whereas a car mechanic will earn £9.72. A nurse will earn £13.44, whereas a police officer will earn £15.91. It does not matter if the care assistant or the nurse is male or female, merely that s/he is in an occupation dominated by women.

Because of the inconsistent work patterns which inevitably follow from the double task of child-rearing and bread-winning, women are only entitled to, on average, 70% of the state pension. In fact, the economic inequity between men and women presents itself later on in the form of pensioner poverty on two fronts : firstly because many women are receiving their full pension, and secondly because one of those C's - caring - which we referred to above as being such a neglected profession is required by something like 15% of the elderly population. And as our society ages, that figure will increase. It is as if older people are being punished for not being productive - but in fact, via paid work, volunteering and caring, the economic contribution of older people in London is such that without them, the capital would sink to its knees.

Inequality in pay is an exemplar of the myth that legislation and policy alone will change things. To change assumptions about the role of men and women, one first needs to alter the economic systems which bolster those assumptions. Undoubtedly, the disparity between the sexes predates our current economic system, but the rights of women had never really been considered before the twentieth century. Now that women have achieved political independence, it is time to reach for economic independence as well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi - glad to see the blog continues and is still so thought provoking - uasing this post as the basis for a discussion with my team tomorrow!!

All the best - Len

12:30 PM  

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