Over 30 years since the Equal Pay Act outlawed discrimination against women in the workplace, the pay gap between men and women is still staggering. Women in full-time jobs pocket only 78 pence for every pound men earn.
The gap grows even wider when you consider that four times more women than men work part-time. Including part-time and full-time work, the gap between the “median” wage for men and women – one measure of average pay – is almost £10,000 a year (see box, “measuring the problem”).
The pay gap is one of the starkest indications that women continue to be devalued and oppressed.
Part of the gap is due to different pay rates for “male” and “female” jobs. There is still considerable gender segregation. Three quarters of employed women work in the five “c”s – cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical occupations.
Men are ten times more likely than women to be employed in skilled trades, and four times less likely to be doing administrative or secretarial work. Only one in 20 engineers and technologists are female.
But even within occupations women are concentrated at lower levels and paid less. Comparing full-time, hourly earnings, the pay gap is 23 percent for medical practitioners, 21 percent for legal professionals and 15 percent for accountants.
How can we explain these differences? For right wingers the gap is no surprise – they told us men and women could never be equal. Sociobiologists such as Kingsley Browne claim “the two sexes possess minds that typically differ in important respects”.
For Browne, men aggressively compete to attract women in order to pass on their genes, while women “have enhanced their reproductive success by providing direct care for their offspring”.
So that’s why jobs in maintenance, firefighting, management, computing, or even positions researching sociobiology, are mostly male – it’s all about sex!
You almost have to admire sociobiologists for the single-minded way they shoehorn human diversity into a supposedly universal drive to reproduce.
Those of us who are less blinkered realise that ways of being a woman, and being a man, have varied massively throughout history.
While right wingers talk of women’s choices reflecting their “nature”, we should look at the ways that society limits those choices. The problem is sexism, which is embedded within the capitalist system.
This takes a number of forms. The burden of childcare still falls primarily on women. As paid care is expensive, many women are forced to stop working for a time, or pushed into part-time jobs.
If we had free childcare, equality at work and proper financial support for carers, men and women would have real choices about how to look after children. But instead, care responsibilities condemn millions of women to low pay, low status jobs.
Women with children suffer the worst loss of earnings. But even those without children can expect to earn a quarter of a million pounds less than men during the course of their life (see box, “the price of discrimination”).
Women, with or without children, tend to be channelled into particular forms of work, for example “caring jobs”, which are perceived to fit with the role of mother. So while women dominate primary school teaching, men fill two thirds of permanent academic posts.
Men’s choices are constrained too. Fathers of young children are under pressure to continue working long hours.
Requests from mothers to work fewer hours are seen by managers as more socially acceptable – although women pay a heavy price through lower pay and loss of promotions.
How can we improve women’s position at work, and whose interests stand in the way? Many feminists have claimed that men benefit from women’s oppression.
Some, such as Cynthia Cockburn, argued that working class men have tried to preserve their own privileges at women’s expense. Sometimes this has happened – socialists acknowledge that there are divisions within the working class.
But these divisions are not eternal or natural. They can be challenged. And it is not true that because women’s pay is suppressed men’s pay rises. If bosses can threaten to employ women on lower rates of pay they can use this to drive down all workers’ wages – and make even greater profits.
Gender discrimination in the workforce affects men in other ways too, for example through the low wages attached to part-time work. Among part-time employees women and men alike suffer from low wages. The median hourly wage is £7 an hour for both.
Women and men suffer in poor jobs where labour turnover is high, unionisation is low, and employers can get away with low pay.
The attitude of the world’s largest corporation, Wal-Mart, shows how contemporary capitalism is built on discrimination, driving labour costs lower. Wal-Mart is currently being sued by US lawyers on behalf of current and former female employees. Women’s experiences there seem truly archaic.
Many were told by male superiors that they did not deserve promotions or raises because they were “housewives”, whereas men were “making careers”. Poverty pay, discrimination and occupational segregation are severe and entrenched throughout Wal-Mart.
Neoliberal policies such as privatisation and the promotion of “labour flexibility” reinforce inequality and disadvantage. These are the policies preferred by multinationals such as Wal-Mart and by New Labour.
Look at how the government treats its own staff. Privatisation continues across the public sector, where three quarters of workers are women.
Contracting out work to private firms means attacks on sick pay and holiday pay. Pension rights are savaged, aggravating the “gender pension gap” – only a third of women get a private pension, compared to two thirds of men, and the amounts received are hugely unequal.
Rather than hoping that one day business and government will see the light, women are more likely to succeed through organising in defence of their interests.
Changes in the labour market provide a basis to both overcome sexist ideas, and for women to fight to improve their position. Women are dragged into work on an unequal basis, but they can organise alongside their fellow workers to fight back.
When public sector unions struck over pensions earlier this year it was the biggest strike by women workers in British history.
Cumbrian health workers recently won a £300 million equal pay claim, with the help of Unison.
Union officer Peter Doyle said, “I aimed everything at our low-paid staff. The assumption was that if you took equal pay claims for women at the top, it would trickle down. But it didn’t. So I devised the trickle up.”
The women won their claim for “equal value” – although they were doing different and lower-paid jobs than men, their jobs were assessed as equally skilled. They had been underpaid partly because managers saw looking after equipment as more important than looking after people.
In a capitalist society, commodities are indeed more important than people, and as any financier’s pay packet will tell you, looking after money is the most important job of all. But women workers (and male workers) need a different society, one that puts people before profit.
The economy is currently organised to accumulate ever more wealth in the hands of the few.
It is not organised to meet people’s needs – vital work like childcare is undervalued or not valued at all, while the masters of war become rich beyond the wildest dreams of yesterday’s millionaires.
Ending gender discrimination at work is part of the broader struggle to transform these dysfunctional social structures.
Measuring the problem
One way of looking at what men and women can expect to earn is to look at the “median” wage for each group. This simply means the wage for the worker who lies in the middle of the range – with equal numbers of people earning more and less than them.
So, for example, in a group of seven workers, the median wage is the wage of the fourth highest earner – three people earn more than them, three earn less.
When this is done across the whole male and female populations, you find that the median wage for men is £24,401 a year. For women it is just £14,562.
The price of discrimination
Over a lifetime a “mid-skilled”, childless women will earn £250,000 less than “mid-skilled” men.
But women with children, who often take responsibility for childcare, suffer the greatest loss of earnings. For them the loss of earnings compared to men is £400,000 over their lifetime.
Rachel Aldred is a sociologist at the London School of Economics