Eventually, every argument about women’s equality comes down to ideas about choice and merit. Unfortunately, the pay gap debate starts there, and never seems to progress.
Just look at today’s news: the pay gap between men and women has widened at nearly half of the UK’s biggest firms. That is not the story of a business community that is urgently seeking to solve an essential unfairness. Brexit has undoubtedly played its part in absorbing the worried attention of bosses to the detriment of women’s rights, but there’s something bigger here too.
Every time I talk about the pay gap I must first prove it exists. In essence it’s the basic anti-feminist argument – “Haven’t you got enough equality?” – that women have what they want and should stop complaining. It stems from defensiveness, sure, but also from a society that is encouraged to believe there is no pay gap. The cult of the individual that has gripped us since Margaret Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society, insists we are all individually responsible for the decisions we make. That permeates every report on the pay gap.
Yesterday, The Times ran a story about a piece of research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that found women were paid nearly 20 percent less per hour than men, which it said was down to women working in low-paid industries and less likely to work in productive companies. The headline ran: “Women earn less because they take lower-paid jobs.” About as illuminating as “People get wet when rain falls from the sky.”
Last week, when it emerged that the pay gap had widened in the public sector too, Wigston Academies Trust, which runs two schools in Leicestershire and has the largest pay gap of any public sector organisation, issued an explanatory statement saying that the majority of its female employees were not teachers, the median paid man in the trust was a teacher and the difference in pay between the two accounted for their pay gap. Seeing an employer justify the pay gap with an essential reason for it was as mind-boggling as the reports that failed to add that essential context.
A brief pause to clarify the reasons for the pay gap. First of all there’s often confusion about what this means. This isn’t about equal pay. That means men and women getting paid the same for the same jobs. It’s illegal not to do this. (Though that does not deter some employers.) The pay gap is the gap in earnings between men and women, and it’s sustained by structural inequalities that start in the classroom and are entrenched by societal attitudes and group-think by white middle-class male policy makers.
Our children are taught gendered expectations of the careers they are fit for according to their sex: boys are encouraged into careers that society values and pays more and told they are innately suited to becoming pilots and engineers, while girls are funnelled into jobs that society values and pays less, if at all, on the grounds they are innately empathetic – born to be carers. This is called occupational segregation, and it’s absolutely key to the pay gap.
So too is the crisis in care that is gripping the UK, a result of successive governments’ decisions to prioritise investment in work traditionally seen as masculine over the work of women. Look at the Chancellor’s emergency Brexit fund: billions of pounds earmarked for investment in technology and research and development, while the Department of Health warns that women will have to drop out of the workforce in even greater numbers to fill the gap in care work as resources drain out of social infrastructure. Women are pushed out of workplaces to take on childcare and increasingly care of older relatives because the state refuses to see care as an investment. That dynamic is then dressed up in talk of ‘lifestyle choices’, where structural inequality is hidden behind assertions that women just repeatedly decide to have children all on their own, just as they choose not to go for promotion or to work part-time or not at all in order to manage their families and households.
We can argue about the pay gap until we’re blue in the face but perhaps it’s time to face up to more essential facts here. The bitterness of these arguments is based on ideas of what men and women are worth according to centuries-old stereotypes designed to limit all of our choices. These are arguments about sustaining a system rather than dismantling it – with all the fear and uncertainty that would entail. Our failure to close the pay gap is primal: the fact that for some men earning more than women is baked into their self-esteem as a male, the ancient stereotype of powerful provider that is as harmful to men as the nurturing empath is to the ranks of women pushed into poverty by their caring duties.
Look at the state of the world. We have never been more divided. In the face of global challenges about the future of work and free movement we’ve been sold more and more lies about the natural order of things – look at the rise of the far right and its fables about going back to the good old times when men bore arms and women having children. But building walls and enforcing stereotypes isn’t the answer. The pay gap is the gap between our past and our future. So let’s embrace the future.