The Trouble With (Paying) Women

NS May 20th, 2009

Further to yesterday’s post, I’m offering up my thoughts on part two of The Trouble With Working Women, which aired last night on BBC2. Entitled “Why can’t a woman earn as much as a man?” it tried to find an explanation for the pay gap (currently at 17% in the UK) by interviewing various people and exploring various theories about the “choices” that women make that result in lower status and earnings in the workplace.

Ah, yes. Choices. Women and all of their darn, conflated CHOICES. If I was to drink a shot of alcohol every time that word was bandied about in this type of discussion I’d be doing a Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas right about now, wandering around the supermarket in a drunken haze, slurring and hiccuping while piling dozens of bottles of Russian vodka into my trolley with merry abandonment.

“What about choices,” you ask? Oh, wherever shall I start? How about with the economist, Dr. Shackleton, who says towards the end of the program that, really, women have made the choice to take lower-level jobs and gone into traditionally female-dominated fields like teaching, nursing and the public sector (which are badly paid) because they get a greater sense of satisfaction out of those roles or because they provide women with the most flexibility. Thefore, according to his astonishingly arrogant and illogical theory, we have effectively made the choice to receive less pay than men.

Clank, clank went my vodka bottle.

After he and the male presenter smugly patted themselves on the back for discovering this phenomenon and solving all our lady angst, they trotted out the arguments always used to defend unequal pay: “But men work more hours than women and don’t take ‘breaks’ to raise children and so they have more experience and are more valuable than women as a whole and (insert more inane myth-spouting here), etc..” Yeah, let me tell you something about those two hours a week that women aren’t in the office when men are. They spend it picking up and dropping off kids, attending appointments and meetings associated with their care or education, doing the shopping, cooking, cleaning and helping with homework. In all, women do about 20 hours of unpaid work for domestic and childcare-related duties each week; men do fewer than 10 on average. 20-10 = 10 hours difference in time spent on household chores, minus 2 hours less at the office, which still equals 8 hours more work per week than men, and unpaid to boot. The fact is, women are doing more work than men, not less. It’s just that domestic labour is not considered “real work” and therefore not taken into account. And as for the patronising drivel that women actively choose roles that pay less because they are more “fulfilling”….well, I think you can see why my vodka bottle was raised again.

Let’s go back a bit now while I digest this potent potato juice.

Towards the beginning of the show we met some of the female machinists at Ford in Dagenham who went on strike in 1968 over pay inequalities between them and male machinists doing similarly skilled work. Even though production at the plant was severely affected and upper management held many ‘talks’ with these ladies in which they promised to increase their pay, it took 16 years and another major strike before they got it. Shameful.

Even more shameful is the present-day situation at Bolton Council, amongst others. Dozens of women who are or were employed by the council are banding together in a class action lawsuit, demanding compensation and redress of the pay discrepancies between them and men of the same skill level. Apparently, what the council had been doing was hiring them in on the same pay but then giving the men “bonuses” that were anywhere between 50-120% of their salary. Clever move on the part of the council, I must say. They thought they’d found a loophole so they could keep screwing women over without getting caught. And now that they have been caught and were told to pay back wages to all its female employees, they’re claiming that there’s just not enough money in their coffers to do so and that it wouldn’t be “fair” to the taxpaying citizens to raise the funds through tax increases. Fair?! FAIR?!! What part of FAIR is screwing women and their families out of hundreds of thousands of pounds over a woman’s working life? £369,000 to be exact. Because that’s how much a woman who works full time can expect to lose out on over the course of her career, due simply to being female. It’s absolutely outrageous and nothing a pompous economist can say will make me think it’s okay or fair, or somehow our own CHOICE.

And…swig. This drinking game is intense!

Another possible explanation we see given in the program is that men are just better at negotiating salary and payrises than women. This might be true in some cases, certainly, because women are taught to be grateful and ‘nice’ as opposed to assertive and selfish (in the good sense of the word — looking out for oneself over others), but it doesn’t account for such huge wage differences as 17%. Besides which, even if women weren’t demanding higher salaries, why is it still okay for businesses to screw them over — just because they can? Why is the onus on women to demand better ethical behaviour from the companies and catch them out instead of on businesses to treat woman as human beings when hiring and paying them?

The icing on the cake was the two presenters at the end discussing their findings and mulling over what it all means, to the strains of violins and laughing children in the background. Sophie, the female presenter, asked some good questions but in the end she just nodded and smiled when jerkface Justin told her that despite all of these pesky pay issues, women lead “richer lives” for being given so many CHOICES (dear god, make it stop!) and for being more involved with their children. Yes, Justin, tell that to the single mother raising three kids and struggling to make ends meet who finds out she’s been getting screwed out of a substantially better paycheque for doing the same work as her male colleagues over the years. I’m sure she’ll just smile and look wistfully into the distance while she muses over how very RICH her life is because of the CHOICE she made to get paid less because she has a uterus.

Unsurprisingly, I say to him: FUCK YOU.

The most sensible and intelligent comment came, not surprisingly, from Minister for Women and Equality, Harriet Harman. She said there is one (and only one) explanation for the disparity between men and women’s wages and it is this: institutional discrimination. You can dress it up in bows, make it into a jigsaw puzzle, a maze, a juggling act, a glass ceiling or any other silly euphemism but the plain and ugly truth is that discrimination against women is so deeply ingrained in so many areas of society and by so many people that all of the documentaries and focus groups and angry blog posts (I’m pretty sure this would count) in the world won’t change working women’s plight.

Until we stop asking that stupid question: “Can women have it all?” and instead start asking “Why do women have to do it all?” we’re infinitely, indefinitely screwed. And I will be drinking vodka for a long, long time to come.

8 Responses to “The Trouble With (Paying) Women”

  1. jen says:

    i can’t believe i wasted an hour of my life on this patronising and dismissive drivel. the idea that the dad staying at home was so “modern”, should have been my first tip off. secondly, that they had to prove that (SURPRISE!) women’s and men’s brains *weren’t different* (the implication being that maybe women are just “built” differently).

    i think you hit the nail on the head when you said “why is the onus on women”. why indeed? girls in single-sex schools have higher expectations for themselves – WHY should we have to isolate ourselves from the insidious institutional discrimination that pervades schools? why not just fix the discrimination? women don’t ask for equivalent pay – WHY should women have to fight for something they’re *by law* equally entitled to? women are causing problems for Councils by demanding back pay – WHY should they have to sue for reparations then sacrifice their entitlement to ensure it’s “fair” to the taxpayer (50% of which are *women*, btw).

    we didn’t create the problem, WHY is the onus always on us to fix it or bend over backward trying to fit the meagre “choices” whilst they blame the victim?

    ah yes, that pesky uterus.

  2. jen says:

    and OH MY EVERLOVIN’ GOD i could not believe when they trotted out *McDonald’s* management training as something other businesses should emulate or women should aspire to. i think i may have hurled something at the television. that was the BEST example they could come up with??!! not, hey look at this Fortune 500 company where women are the CEO, COO, etc., or hey, look at this programme which mentors young girls to become Nobel prize winning nuclear physicists. no, no – look at McDonald’s.

  3. NS says:

    @jen – Oh yes, that modern marvel and superhero: the stay-at-home dad. No one tells my husband how “lucky” he is that I stay at home and look after the kids while he works, but I know the female partners of SAHDs do, frequently. As if we should bow down and give the man a medal for doing what he is already responsible for. Puh-lease. SAHDs are the same as SAHMS — nothing more, nothing less.

    Oh, and on the brain testing thing, did you hear when the male presenter, Justin, said “It would’ve been so humiliating if I’d scored lower than Sophie!” Way to ruin your ‘modern man’ credentials there, Justin!

    Re: McDonald’s — Oh god, I agree. I loved that because 37% of the management are female, they were held up as a beacon of political correctness. Though, of course, the inevitable question came about whether they hire women purposely over men, because Justin couldn’t wrap his sexist brain around the fact that when women are in management it isn’t always because of affirmative action or other “PC gone mad” laws. FFS.

  4. What a noble drinking game. I usually go for fuzzy duck or similar.

    Where does the 17% figure come from? I always worked in the private sector, in small/medium size firms, where negotiation was king, regardless of sex. I was amazed at the disparity there was within the the pay structure, we had an overpaid accountant (female) and underpaid technical director (male), and an incredibly overpaid operations manager (moi).

    But I have not experience employment where there are grades, or lots of people doing the same thing, and I hope I never do to be honest.

  5. Cave Mother says:

    The pay issue is one I just can’t get my head around. I felt equally valued (and valuable) as the boys at my mixed school. I went to a fantastic, male dominated university, studied a male dominated subject, and passed with flying colours. At no point did I feel discriminated against. Yet the FACT is that women like me are still discriminated against, in terms of pay, every day. We weren’t brought up to feel inferior. It came as a hurtful surprise to me that I was discriminated against in the workplace. This was not the world that I had been taught to expect.

  6. Nicola says:

    I SO wish I had seen this programme (unfortunately not shown in Chicago, that I am aware of). Mind you, I am not sure the tele would have survived having a glass of wine or a big fat fist being put through it. Thank you so much for blogging about this issue. I have so much to say but non of it is really coherent, being 2 glasses of wine down and the third is in the midst of being poured. And thank you Harriet Harman – it is institutional and societal discrimination. Before I had kids I was working my arse off but paid less than my male counterparts (it was almost an unspoken agreement that because they had ‘families to support’ they were paid more…) and now if I want to venture back into that arena and fight the good fight then my kids will be practically parent-less on a Mon-Fri basis. I think my ex could live with this scenario, but I can’t. They call America the land of opportunity – but I really haven’t experienced that at all as a mother, or a more recently a single mum.

  7. NS says:

    @SingleParentDad – Have a look at this chart of the pay gap

    17% is only the average gap for average wage earners. In the City, female stockbrokers earn 60% less than their male counterparts. Women in upper management roles (in most sectors) earn 30% less. Essentially, the more powerful the job, the less pay women receive compared to their male colleagues.

    @Cave Mother – Your experience is similar to many women’s. That betrayal is all the worse when you’ve been told your entire life that you’re just as good, that you can do anything you want, that you’re equal to your male peers…only to find out you’re not valued the same and that it was all lip service.

    @Nicola – Ah yes, “families to support.” That is the original ‘reason’ that men were paid more, when women first started entering the workforce. Because they figured that a woman’s income was merely ‘supplemental’ and the job held merely to give her some personal ‘satisfaction’ and get her out of the house, it seemed only fair to give the guys more. That might’ve worked in the very, very beginning but it sure as hell doesn’t work now and we aren’t turning up to work every day merely for some pin money or so that we have something to talk about at cocktail parties.

  8. blues says:

    I don´t have much to add to what has already been said by the other commenters. Excellent post and I can feel your anger through the screen and I feel it too because I´m fucking sick of it. Sick of it in general and sick of it in my own relationship and in my family.

    Those low paying jobs are low paying BECAUSE women occupy the positions, they are not low paying and THEN women occupy them.