I’m proud to be writing this article in the same week that the Labour Party welcomed another female minister onto its shadow cabinet. Much in the style of a village committee meeting, I’d like to start by wishing Mary Creagh the best of luck as she takes up her new post as shadow international development secretary.
Despite this promising advance in our own party, the state of gender equality further afield is a depressing scene. As of the 4th November, the women of this country will work for free for the rest of the year. This is due to the gender pay gap in Britain, where women earn on average over 15% less than their male counterparts (this disparity is greater with regard part-time work). Now, I’m all for incremental change on this issue but I don’t know what’s really improving given it’s over 40 years since the passage of the Equal Pay Act and we’re still fighting for equal pay!
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what my problem is with this issue and why it’s not just another element of the broader issue of gender inequality. For me, the issue of unequal pay is the issue, the biggest barrier to gender equality. This is a core example of how exploitative power relations in the means of production directly affect social structures in society. Before you disregard my argument as a far-fetched, Marxist rant, you should hear my justifications for this claim.
With women earning on average 15.6% less than their male counterparts, they are very rarely the ‘breadwinner’ in their family situation, ie the likelihood is that their partner is earning more than them, even if they do the same job. Therefore, when it comes to having children, it is financially more feasible for the lowest earner, the woman, to stay home and look after the children. This confines women to the domestic sphere. With the gender pay gap widening, this trend will be reproduced, or even exacerbated, in generations to come.
So, where I’m happy that this issue has made the news, I’m disappointed with how fleeting it’s appearance has been and how quickly we have brushed it off. I appreciate some party leaders, politicians and celebrities donning the ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts following the establishment of Emma Watson’s UN ‘Heforshe’ campaign, but I feel that we are missing something vital in how to resolve issues of gender inequality.
Women’s confinement to the domestic sphere is not the cause of the problem, it’s the symptom. If we are truly going to achieve gender equality, then tackling unequal pay is the place that we need to begin. It is the duty of all those who believe in and fight for equality to honour the work of Barbara Castle, the ladies in the Ford factory and all those who fought and continue to fight for gender equality, that we don’t let this issue go away. We are now at a crucial point in the fight for gender equality. If we want to make the free-market system work for women then now is the time to stand up and be counted. We need to make the government realise that people come before profit and women, and those who fight alongside us, do not accept the gross injustice done to us every day when we enter the office.
Becky Gittins is Warwick Labour’s Women’s Officer.