When the austerity budget was revealed in June 2010 it was quickly apparent that women would bear the brunt of the new Coalition government cuts. The likely impact was analysed at the time by Yvette Cooper who described the emergency budget as looking like “the worst for women since the creation of the welfare state”. Since then, the emerging catalogue of austerity measures: cuts to public sector, to public services, reductions in welfare measures, cuts to benefits including tax credits, have created a barren landscape for today’s women in conservative Britain.
It is easy to forget that this new reality came hard on the heels of what now seems a “golden era” which culminated in Harriet Harman’s Equality Act 2010. We could be forgiven for thinking then that women were steadily on their way to equal pay and opportunities and to the outlawing of “unfair treatment … in the workplace and wider society”.
When public services are withdrawn or cut, it is women, as carers or mothers who commonly step in to fill the breach. Women also filled many of the low-paid public sector jobs that have been lost. Those who have hung on to their jobs experience the same career insecurity and lowering expectations as all today’s workforce. But in addition they face a stubborn gender pay gap that has hardly changed in decades. In some analyses, such as the 2010 report from the Fawcett Society with the public sector union, Unison, this remains as high as 14.9%.
The Annual Survey of Hours and Earning published by the National Office of Statistics at the end of 2011 revealed that the official gap in 2011 had shrunk to below 10% for the first time ever are therefore of scant comfort. The figure does relate to a key statistic – median full-time hourly earnings – but it does not tell the whole story.
A problem with averages
Trying to justify cuts to the public sector, the Coalition Government argued that public sector workers receive higher average wages than those in the private sector. At the time, UNISON pointed out that this was a ‘meaningless’ analysis which had overlooked a vital factor: a transfer of the lowest-paid jobs from public to private sector had artificially inflated the public sector average.
In the same vein, it is possible that economic crisis followed by austerity may have led to a similar distortion of averages and a consequent misleading appearance of a narrowing gender pay difference. Women hold 65% of public sector jobs and predominate in the administrative and service sectors. Since government cuts have had a greater impact in these lower-paid jobs, the women who held these jobs were more likely to be made redundant. The average pay of the women who remained in work would thus be higher, narrowing the gender gap but as a result of job losses and a rise in women’s unemployment rate. As TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber explained: ‘Female unemployment is already at a 23-year high, and with so many women employed in the public sector, this will only deteriorate.’
The Fawcett Society too, has reservations about the new 2011 figure of 9.1% since it does not take into account the kind of work that women and men do. According to the Fawcett Society, 64% of the lowest-paid workers are women. Some two thirds of workers who earn less than £7 an hour are women. At the other extreme, the highest-paid jobs are characterised by a concentration of men. Lord Davies’s 2011 official investigation into the barriers preventing women reaching the boardroom found that only 7.8% of FTSE 250 directorships were held by women.
This pattern of sex segregation - broadly, men concentrated at the top end of the pay scale, women concentrated at the bottom – is the main determinant of the continuing difference in women’s and men’s pay, as Jude Brown finds in her study, Sex Segregation and Inequality in the Modern Labour Market. But how has this inequality persisted, 42 years since the first Equal Pay Act? The background to this Act was nostalgically re-enacted in last year’s box-office success, Made in Dagenham. On screen, the promise by Secretary of State Barbara Castle that the women workers at the Essex car factory would see legislation addressing the inequalities of shop floor pay was presented as a battle won, a victory for equality and justice by organised working women.
Today, equality and justice appear to be low-down on the political agenda. Coalition austerity has returned children into poverty and left skilled adults without work; cuts threaten pensioners and deprive disabled people of their independence. Conservative ideology scapegoats the unemployed and single mothers and reframes benefits claimants as state freeloaders. At such a time focusing on pay inequalities between men and women may look like putting principle before the urgent needs of those struggling to survive.
But with increasing numbers of families now dependent on women’s wages, it could equally be argued that the issue of gender pay disparity is all the more pertinent. Households headed by single mothers can ill afford to lose that vital 10% in their pay packets; it could be the difference between having or not having enough to eat for the week.
Ending the gender pay gap for good has never been simply about ensuring that Ms Jones receives the same money as Mr Jones for the same job. It is about recognising the broader picture. The tough challenges are to develop progressive policies that value male and female-dominated jobs equally, and that rebalance the burden of childcare.
Jobs undertaken predominantly by women tend to be undervalued, even where they require more responsibility or skill than male-dominated jobs. ‘Comparable worth’ is hard to prove. Is teaching as valuable as plumbing? How can secretaries show that they should be paid the same as drivers? The idea that the jobs women do - whatever they are - are less worthwhile than the jobs men do - whatever they are - appears ingrained and wages reflect this.
And there remain the perennial difficulties for working parents, seldom posed as a problem for men. As mothers, women are assumed to have other priorities; the lack of institutional support for egalitarian parenting is rarely, if ever, considered. The beliefs underlying ‘family friendly’ Conservative policies appear to centre on the welfare of families but do not address underlying problems of gender roles. As long as women are earning 10% less than men, it makes more financial sense (particularly in hard times) for mothers to take the main burden of childcare.
And yet this economic downturn may prove different from those of the past. Never before have women been so financially independent and never before have the consequences of austerity been so brazenly visited upon the less well off. The Coalition’s reported lack of success with women voters gives women an important casting vote on how a fairer world of work evolves. Any kind of gender pay gap may come to be seen as, quite simply, unacceptable.