On hearing the extensive coverage of this week’s release by the IFS showing the ongoing and shocking disparity between male and female earnings, many people and particularly women, met the news with a shrug – ‘Tell us something we didn’t know’. Even with that, many were also shocked by how much the gap widens for mothers in particular. Genuinely shocked. Like something you had always suspected was even worse than you thought possible.
I was also somewhat comforted (oddly) by how widely this story was covered from early morning right through the day and through so many channels (BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, the FT, Sky News). Coming as it did on the same day as the announcement that HRT significantly increases the risk of breast cancer, I felt that for a change, these stories that really affect women, and are about women, made headline news. And although not exactly happy stories, they were stories about the female circumstance, what women encounter across classes and communities, not women as they so often appear in news headlines – victims. Sad I know that I should feel grateful that women were being noticed. Then I tweeted about the report and got trolled – plus ca change, nothing changes. This is the society in which so many things have to be reformed it’s hard to know where to begin.
While I was mulling this over, I heard Maria Miller interviewed on Radio 4 about the IFS report. Now clearly Ms Miller was unhappy about the pay gap and made all the right noises about redressing wage gaps, encouraging employers to think differently and wage reporting. She has every reason to be concerned as the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and former Minister for Women and Equalities – this has happened on her watch. She also talked about the importance of reducing gender difference in schools – something I am quite passionate about as a parent of two girls. My experience of their co-education is one where boys and girls are openly treated differently, separated into two lines to enter classrooms, given different dress codes and even separated in the offer of PE – my youngest couldn’t join the afterschools football club because she was a girl.
And then Miller said something that stopped me in my tracks. To paraphrase, she said we needed to encourage more girls to ‘take the right subjects’ (maths, sciences and engineering) in order to place them onto a better track for higher earning jobs. She said her own committee’s report had flagged that career choice and job choice were contributing to this pay gap because men were going into higher earning fields while women were ‘choosing’ lower wage occupations even prior to having children.
Right there, she said the thing that betrays one of the root causes of the continuing pay gap and a philosophy that has been tacitly adopted by successive governments, regardless of party or gender of their cabinet or leader. Between the lines, what she said means two things:
- that women only deserve higher pay levels if they adopt the hierarchy of jobs and education predetermined by the existing political and economic elite (an elite that has a vested interest IMHO in the wealth gap staying pretty much where it is, a gaping chasm); and
- that encouraging hard graft by individual women and girls will pull them up to the same level as men, ignoring what the report was saying about barriers to workplace progression, lack of childcare, etc).
What she didn’t say was that her own committee’s report in March this year said that the government is complicit in perpetuating the pay gap. This report had four key points:
- ‘Supporting men and women to share childcare and other forms of unpaid caring more equally is one of the most effective policy levers in reducing the gender pay gap.
- Many women are trapped in low paid, part-time work below their skill level. This contributes to pay disparities and the under-utilisation of women’s skills costs the UK economy up to 2% GDP, around £36 billion.
- Not enough is being done to support women returning to work if they have had time out of the labour market.
- Too little attention has been focused on the situation of women working in low-paid, highly feminised sectors like care, retail and cleaning. Until their rates of pay and progression improve, the gender pay gap will not be eliminated.’
It did mention job and career choice but this was not considered the major contributor to this gap. Now Maria Miller and her party may have had a few other things on their mind between her own committee’s report and the IFS report but one thing is clear. The reports both talk about CURRENT conditions and issues of policy not about FUTURE labour force and what career paths will yield higher salaries. Miller emphasised higher earning jobs and access to promotion as the route to higher salaries but actually if she is serious about equality she needs to look at her own committee’s report.
Asking employers nicely to think about changing their working culture, putting more women onto non-exec boards and encouraging women to ‘man up’ (should that be ‘ovary up’?) when asking for bonuses MIGHT help some already educated, already employed women to earn more money. For the Women and Equalities Committee to truly do their job properly (and for the committees responsible for equality in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to do the same), what needs to change is the state’s relationship to work, citizenship and economic activity.
So I ask Maria Miller, and as a citizen sitting in one of the devolved countries over which she has little or no direct responsibility, I ask my own elected officials responsible for equality, to address themselves to real reform:
- Listen to what these two reports are actually saying about barriers, problems with working culture, etc and work with the devolved assemblies to achieve reforms nationally.
- Stop basing the nature of work and pay level escalation on a structure that rewards the financial services sector to a greater level than caring professions, the voluntary and education sectors or the SMEs that are the backbone of our private sector and local communities. Respect that hours at work do not determine knowledge or effectiveness and that the old-fashioned nature of work as it is currently determined can be anti-woman or anti-family. Are you the government of a society and a state or are you a principle negotiator with a small group of wealthy privileged bankers and business men who base their management structures on the military?
- Stop treating education as employment training. Equality is about widening choices and respecting diversity. If you want to fulfil the brief of the women and equalities committee, re-examine what time in school and other training/education is for and reform the relationship between formal education, early years care and informal activities like youth clubs.
- While we’re on the subject of education, re-examine what we mean by gender equality in schools – we already have a gender imbalance in teaching in which more early years and primary teachers are female while the 20% of teachers who are male are mostly at second level. What is that telling us and more importantly our children about the role of men and women? Why are we privileging sciences in the curriculum over literature, arts and history? Why is a Minister responsible for Equality encouraging young women to see their route to equality in the private sector and not in healthcare, education, social reform or even politics? Why are domestic science and other life skills not compulsory? Why are we still failing to provide young people (male and female) with skills in managing and understanding their emotional responses and relationships with others? You want to change women’s future prospects – you need to change it for everyone.
- Stop being piecemeal about national minimum and living wages and start being more demanding of employers to raise salaries at lower levels. This debate is about closing the gap and that can happen more universally by bringing lower wage levels up rather than encouraging the small number whose families can already afford the ‘right’ education and know the right people to be socially mobile . The committee’s own report is pointing to this.
- Think long and hard about whether a Universal Basic Income might actually be more financially effective in increasing career opportunities, dealing with childcare and supporting fulltime parents, lower paid and part-time women. Would it reduce administration costs, health issues related to stress, anti-social behaviour, the breakup of families, and problems with age-related poverty? I think it just might.
- Champion the rights of women and men to take time out to bring up the country’s
children and not be hounded by social welfare offices or penalised in their careers and earnings for doing so. The #genderpaygap is as much about the gender gap as it is about pay and particularly when it comes to our choices in bringing up the next generation.
- Recognise that encouraging ‘entrepreneurialism’ is also a route into removing employment rights, affecting women more than men. I have known many women become self-employed to deal with the demands of childcare or the lack of progression in the workplace only to find themselves earning far less with no entitlements to maternity or sick pay. The ‘self-made entrepreneur’ is a fictional pup for all bar the very few and you know it.
- Suspend social welfare reforms that adversely affect parents or caregivers of either gender. Part-time workers and primary caregivers are being penalised both now and when they reach pensionable age. You already know it. This is not equality.
- Ensure all government departments in Westminster and the devolved assemblies recognise the connectivity of policy and their effects on women, whether it is about national living wages, universal credit, corporation tax reform, incentivising of industries, or the removal of the Human Rights Act. Universal credit is anti-woman, harmful to both genders and future generations of women and men. Right now the changes to housing benefit combined with cuts to council funding are threatening to close many women’s shelters while the government claims to be increasing funding for victims of domestic violence. I call Maria Miller out on this – she have been one of the leaders of women’s rights within government and she is letting this happen.
Ultimately, as the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller needs to stop encouraging employers to do something her own committee and government are not prepared to do – change policy to support women and close the pay gap. Put your money and your actions where your mouth is. The point of equality is about equality of choice and respect for those decisions not meeting a male version of equality and success based on an archaic economic model of the workplace. Changing the environment for women would improve equality for all.