Socialist Worker

Harriet Harman and the real pay gap

by Goretti Horgan
Issue No. 2164

I was shocked to find myself on Harriet Harman’s side last week. Under a year ago I ran a campaign to send her hundreds of emails with the subject line, “Shame on you Harriet Harman!” – of which, more later.

But Harman was subjected to sexist ridicule last week when she pointed out that there are too few women at a leadership level in politics, that only a tiny number of women make it onto the board of directors of banks and other financial institutions, that the gender pay gap remains too big and that the rape laws need to be reviewed to improve conviction rates.

All of this is true. For example, of all rapes reported in 2007-08, only 6.5 percent resulted in a conviction, compared with 34 percent of criminal cases generally.

What she had to say about the gender pay gap is one of those “lies, damned lies and statistics” stories.

Harman said that women in banks are paid, on average, 40 percent less than men, although the gender gap is “only”

23 percent in the workforce as a whole.

This caused the UK Statistics Authority chief to issue a statement saying that Harman’s use of figures was “potentially misleading”.

He said that, when you look at full-time workers only, the gender pay gap was actually “only” 12.8 percent.

This criticism of Harman for using the most relevant figure—the one that includes all women workers, not just the two-thirds of employed women who work full-time—points up some of the problems about talk of the gender pay gap.

At the bottom of the labour market, there is a small gap. In fact, in some of the lowest paid occupations, women tend to earn a little bit more than men.

The “race to the bottom”, which has seen employers pushing wages down as far as they can, has resulted in little difference between the hourly wages earned by men and women in the half of the population who earn least.

This trend caused one woman I know to respond to Harman’s concerns by quipping, “It’s not the glass ceiling I’m worried about, it’s the sticky floor!”

As you look higher up the pay scale, however, the gap starts to widen. So it’s no surprise that in the super-salaried banking and financial sector, women are paid, on average, 40 percent less than men.

Here’s where Harman starts to lose me. It’s hard to worry about women who get paid £100,000 a year instead of £140,000 when the vast majority of women- and men – are trying to get by on just a little more than the minimum wage.

Harman cares only about the tiny minority of women at the top. She made this plain within weeks of New Labour’s victory in 1997 when she was responsible for cutting Lone Parent’s Allowance, which predominantly affected women.

And while making it more difficult for women to choose to become mothers, Harman conspired with the most anti-woman forces in Parliament last October to make it harder for them to choose not to be.

Proposed reforms to abortion law would have made it easier for women in Britain to get abortions and extended the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party voted in favour of 42-day detention of “terrorist” suspects in return for an assurance that the Abortion Act would not be extended to Northern Ireland.

To deliver this deal Harman, as leader of the House, pulled a stroke to stop Parliament voting on abortion reforms.

As a result, women in Northern Ireland pregnant as a result of rape still cannot get an NHS abortion.

That’s why we were emailing to say, “Shame on you, Harriet Harman!”

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Article information

Tue 11 Aug 2009, 18:46 BST
Issue No. 2164
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