What are the next battles for gender equality?
Today is International Women's Day - a day on which we should celebrate successes and draw new lines in the sand. The strides women have made been incredible.
As novelist Linda Grant tweeted this morning, “Feminism has been the defining historical change of my lifetime, the most successful revolution.” But it is also thanks to such strong progress that we need to redraw the battle lines for women’s equality. Gender inequality continues to be a massive issue, but the nature of this inequality is changing. So, therefore, must its solutions.
Take gender parity in pay. Broad statements about a gender pay gap between men and women do not root out where the main problems of inequality lie. One of the main issues facing women in the workplace is the ‘motherhood’ or ‘caring’ penalty that women often face. In 2015 the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that women who return to work after taking maternity leave endure lower pay and fewer promotions for decades. The ‘motherhood penalty’ is one of the biggest drivers of pay inequality between men and women, and may explain why the pay gap gets worse as women get older. Introducing broad brush equal pay legislation simply isn’t good enough. There needs to be legislation that recognises the particular problem of the ‘motherhood penalty’ and addresses it specifically.
Moreover, pay inequality is less an issue of like-for-like pay, and more concerned with the fact that women are disproportionately low-paid work. In 2015, a study by the TUC found that around half of the net growth in female employment in 2014 came from women moving in to lower-paid part-time jobs. The analysis shows that while full-time employment accounted for all of the net growth in male employment in 2014, for women full-time employment accounted for just 47 per cent of net female jobs growth. The UK has the third lowest proportion of women in full-time employment out of the 27 OECD countries.
Tackling the gender pay gap therefore means having a conversation about what constitutes women’s work. Are women locked in low-status, poorly-paid jobs because patriarchy keeps them there? Or are these jobs poorly-paid and undervalued because the work women traditionally do is seen as less important? What can we do to redress the power imbalance in these sectors?
Similarly, we need to talk about the role of men in the ‘motherhood penalty,’ which surely exists because men are not doing their fair share of caring – the unpaid, unrecognised form of labour that almost always falls to women. The recent introduction of shared paternal leave should go some way in evening out the care duties between men and women, but it will take concerted effort to break traditional ideas of masculinity before we see the mind set shift we need. Essentially we need to raise men to not think of caring as unmanly, and to see it as a shared responsibility with the women in their lives. As Gloria Steinem once said, 'We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons to be more like our daughters.'
The gender movement needs to be focusing much more on the so-called 'intersections' of gender, race and class. I'm less worried about well-educated middle-class women than I am about the huge numbers of women working in precarious jobs in our care, retail and hospitality sectors. Tackling gender pay issues would be hugely aided if these industries were unionised so that women can come together and fight exploitative practices – after all this the story behind the birth of the Equal Pay Act.
Yet many fighting for gender equality are quiet about this issue. Sector-specific approaches to increasing pay is one way we could go – for instance demanding that local government procures care services in a way that supports the fight for equality. But to do any of this we have to bring some economics to the battlefield. Sexism does plague the lives of all women's lives, as too do every day micro aggressions on the street and in the work place. But again, this is about attitudinal change - the way we collective raise our sons and daughters.
The amazing strides made by the gender movement to date mean that we need to rethink. We must focus much more underlying gender norms and the drivers of wage inequality to get to the root causes of gender disparities. We must be wary that the gender equality movement does not simply become a tick box exercise. Instead we must demand a fundamental overhaul of how we think about both men and women and unite to call for an inclusive economy.
So today let's build solidarity because the next chapter in the fight for gender equality will require even more courage and determination.