At precisely 4.34pm on Monday 7 November 2016, women across France left the workplace in protest against wage discrimination. Their rationale was simple: women on average are paid 15% less than men and thus women should work 15% less. The walkout resembled protests that have occurred for the past 11 years in Iceland. Each year on 24 October - a historic day commemorating the 1975 Icelandic women's strike - women leave work at the exact time they would leave were they to receive the same pay as their male counterparts.
Walkouts of this nature have achieved historic success in the fight for equal pay. In the UK, for example, the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968 shifted public and political opinion in favour of wage parity between genders. Realising that male machinists in the same role would receive 15% more pay - the same figure recently cited by French strikers - female workers, led by Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis and Sheila Douglass, walked out of the plant in Dagenham and refused to return until they were offered fairer conditions.
The Ford protest was a pivotal moment in the history of the British labour movement and helped to spark the process that ended with the Equal Pay Act 1970, which criminalised any form of gender discrimination based on remuneration. The protests were so essential, indeed, that Labour MP Shirley Summerskill cited the strikers' seminal role in the struggle for wage equality during the Second Reading of the Act.
The recent French protests, while largely symbolic, are analogous to the successful protests of the past. Such protests remove abstractions and return political discourse to the core issue: hours worked should result in equal compensation regardless of gender. The protests often avoid overt partisan politics. And, most importantly, the protests highlight the overlooked absurdity of the gender pay gap.
The protests disarm, and even absorb, counter arguments. One argument against the protests states, for example, that it is unfair that women get to leave work early while men seemingly have to work extra hours for no extra pay. The basis of this complaint is essentially the nexus of the women's argument and thus the complaint is inadvertently akin to solidarity. To argue that a woman leaving work early is economically unfair is to support the closing of the gender pay gap, albeit unconsciously.
Another counter argument suggests that women simply do not deserve equal pay: an ostensibly antiquated but hardly absent argument. This argument relies on ill-informed ideas about maternity, gender constructs and even biological ability. It seldom relies on verifiable facts. Such an argument is sexist in motivation and serves only to highlight the actual problem: that directly or indirectly, gender prejudice is still prevalent in society.
The real difficulty in arguing against these protests is that the strength of the case for closing the gender pay gap is patently obvious to those devoid of prejudice. The disparity of wages between genders is a familiar injustice, of course, but an injustice nonetheless. Despite gains in the past, particularly on the legislative side, it is still common to witness a woman losing out on a job opportunity to a less qualified man. The unfair treatment of women around maternity is still widespread: the Fawcett society claims, for example, that 54,000 women each year leave employment early due to mistreatment after having a child.
Men still occupy the majority of the most coveted jobs in society - as one can witness, almost without failure, by examining the heads of any large company - while 60% of those earning less than the living wage are women. Moreover, women occupy 80% of roles in the care and leisure sectors, and those working in other 'feminised' sectors are still less valued and still less well paid. It takes a special kind of ignorance to disregard this injustice.
We live in a moment in history, akin to every other moment in modern history, when a woman doing exactly the same job as a man can expect less pay. This is quite obviously an absurdity. Due primarily to battles won in the past, however, we currently have the ability to challenge this injustice. The protests in France and Iceland received worldwide attention and emphasised the importance of closing the gender pay gap. With public support, as was witnessed in 1968 and myriad moments throughout history, one hopes that these protests can exact real change and offer women not special privilege but equal terms.
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