Socialist Worker

Why are women still on the bottom rung?

Judith Orr looks at why women are still earning substantially less than men despite 36 years of the Equal Pay Act

Issue No. 1991

Women are concentrated in low-paid work (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Women are concentrated in low-paid work (Pic: Guy Smallman)

So it’s our fault. Women suffer discrimination and unequal pay because we make the wrong choices. New Labour tells us choice is everything. Now it claims that if

only more teenage girls chose to be captains of industry instead of nursery nurses then inequality would be a thing of the past.

Last week’s report from the government’s Women and Work Commission exposed the shocking reality of unequal pay in Britain today – on average women earn at least 17 percent less than men. Women now make up 50 percent of the workforce but find themselves in low paid jobs, denied promotion and discriminated against if they get pregnant.

But instead of attacking the employers responsible the report says, “We believe if girls are made more aware of the consequences of their choices for their future pay and career progression they might make different choices.” So the problem is women choose crappy jobs and low pay.

The scandal of low pay has to be laid at the door of the bosses who pay the wages. But there are no plans to impose the law on them. Instead the report tries to assure them, “gender equality is good for business”.

When the Equal Pay Act was passed in May 1970 bosses were given five years grace to make changes before it came into force in 1975. They didn’t budge then and 36 years on there is still a pay gap. Why would bosses suddenly submit now without being forced to?

But the report is clear: “Some of us believe that the voluntary approach is the best way forward… for instance [the bosses’ organisation] the CBI feel that mandatory pay reviews would represent an excessive burden, out of proportion to the problem and out of tune with the current deregulatory climate.”

So the government agrees with big business that legally enforcing equal pay would be an imposition.

Yet no one believes that the minimum wage would ever have been paid out voluntarily, and bosses all over Britain said it would ruin them.

Low pay

It didn’t ruin them, and the majority of workers who benefited were women. In fact two thirds of those affected by the October 2004 uprating of the minimum wage were women. Proof, if any more were needed, that the lower end of the pay scale is crowded with women workers.

So why is this happening? Why are women still suffering such basic discrimination at a time when some say women are “having it all” and that oppression is a thing of the past?

Much has changed in women’s lives in the last 50 years with many gains for working women, most of which have come through struggle.

It was women machinists at Ford Dagenham plant in east London who made history when they went on strike for equal pay in 1968. They put the issue on the front pages and eventually onto the statute books.

There have also been legal changes on divorce, abortion and domestic violence, but for millions of women it feels like sexism in society is rampant today. Woman’s bodies are casually treated like commodities.

Glance at any newsstand and most magazines or tabloid papers will have half naked woman on the front page. To be seen as sexy is now the highest accolade – the latest pin ups are Olympic sports women posing in bikinis.

A new book, Female Chauvinist Pigs by US writer Ariel Levy, argues that women’s struggle for sexual liberation has been distorted by a society that treats women as sex objects – that sexuality is being defined by what she calls “raunch culture”.

This is a culture where going to lap dancing clubs and learning to pole dance is cool. She describes gyms that run “cardio striptease” classes, all in the name of empowerment.

Guardian journalist, Natasha Walter, wrote recently on this phenomenon, saying that the “new feminism” of the 1990s has been misinterpreted. She said, “I wanted women to work on the political, economic and social inequalities rather than obsess about how a feminist should dress – but I didn’t mean that we should all join pole dancing classes and forget the politics.”

It’s true that sex is everywhere. Even preteen girls get coached on how to attract a boyfriend, but this is not genuine openness. There is still massive ignorance among young people about the reality of sexual relationships.

Last week a petition signed by 2,000 teenagers demanding compulsory sex and relationship education (SRE) in all secondary schools was delivered to Downing Street.

This followed a survey in Cosmogirl magazine in which a third of teenagers said the SRE in their school was “absolute rubbish” and more than 80 percent felt it could be better. Is it surprising that Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe?

Throughout their chilhood young women and men have a bewildering induction into how they should behave and what is natural. Every aspect of their lives is shaped by society’s expectations of gender roles.

It becomes common sense that women and men are naturally good at different things. So when a talking Barbie doll was produced her phrases included, “I love shopping” and “math is hard”.

If Barbie is perhaps too superficial an example of gender determination, what about Lawrence H Summers, the newly departed president of the prestigious Harvard university in the US. He said last year, at a seminar organised to look at the question of the lack of women in the sciences, that women were perhaps not hardwired for maths.

No wonder the commission report states that children “express fixed views about men’s and women’s roles at a very early age”.

In one study of primary school children, “95 percent of boys thought that car repairs should be done only by men, and 80 percent of girls thought that washing and mending clothes should only be done by women”.


Despite these preconceptions about ability, the Women and Work Commission report admits that young women have high aspirations while at school, and do as well as, if not better than, men while in full time education.

But these aspirations are quickly crushed when, after only three years of work, the pay gap between women and men is already 15 percent, a gap that only increases with age.

The reason? Women have children. Women’s role in the family is still the most important factor in shaping women’s oppression in modern capitalist society. It is structured into every part of women’s lives.

How they experience this oppression is defined by class. Unequal pay in the boardroom is one thing, but unequal pay for working class women means living on the breadline.

But there is a contradiction. Women are now a vital part of the workforce. However, the dominant ideas in society say that women are naturally the child carers and this is their most important role. This view says that anything that goes wrong with their children is not down to poverty, bad housing or youth services cuts, but down to women not fulfilling this role properly.

The result? Women work and feel guilty about the effect on their children. We are bombarded with studies suggesting that professional childcare is damaging to children.

Of course, wealthy women will employ a nanny, sometimes two. They will never be criticised for neglect. Instead they will be praised for being “superwomen”. They can also afford to give up work and stay at home. Unlike working class women they will not be accused of being a burden on the state.

All the time employers get away with discriminating against working mothers. Recruitment agencies reveal that more than 70 percent have been asked by clients to avoid hiring pregnant women or even those of childbearing age.

I was taken on as a telecom engineer in the 1990s. The manager who did the interview later told me, without embarrassment, how angry he was that personnel had not allowed him to ask if I intended to have children.

Part time work seems a solution. The majority of part time workers are women but women who work part time earn 32 percent less than the hourly earning of women who work full time and an astonishing 41 percent less than men who work full time.

The reality is many working class women would love the chance to stay home longer but can’t afford to.

Others want or need to work full time but struggle to find affordable childcare, and rely on complicated and stressful arrangements with family and other parents.

All this is a world away from the comfortable existence of New Labour ministers who preach to ordinary women about how they should lead their lives.

It is the daily experience of women’s oppression. It is the reason women end up in jobs they do – not because they choose them, but precisely because they have no choice.

Further reading

Female Chauvinist Pigs
Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
Ariel Levy

Sex, Class And Socialism
Lindsey German
£ 6.00

Personal Politics
The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left
Sara Evans

These books, and many more, are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE Phone: 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Article information

Sat 11 Mar 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1991
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