By Kerry Abel
2018 represents 100 years of women’s suffrage, with 6th February marking the hundredth anniversary of the Representation of the Peoples Act.
A rallying cry of the Suffragettes was Deeds Not Words. We have a government which pays lip service to women’s rights, their oppression and their representation. But these are only words.
A century on we should analyse the actual real situation women face and our achievements.
The struggle for equal pay for work of equal value is also a struggle against poverty. Those at the bottom of the pay scales at most workplaces are women. Even accounting for class and race differences women end up worse off – working class women are paid less than working class men; black women are paid less than black men; university educated women are paid less than university educated men and so on.
The UK median gender pay gap is currently 18.4% for all employees and 9.1% for full-time workers. Despite the 1970 Equal Pay Act making the practice of paying men and women differently for the same work unlawful, the biggest single piece of legislation to narrow the gender pay gap was the introduction of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) in 1997.
Parliamentary analysis shows the following:
“Research from the Low Pay Commission shows that the gender pay gap among the lowest paid fell from 12.9% when the NMW was introduced in 1998 to 5.5% in 2014. Analysis by the Fawcett Society in 2014 found that raising the NMW from £6.60 per hour to the Living Wage of £7.65 nationally, and £8.80 in London, would immediately reduce the gender pay gap by 0.8%. According to JRF, the cost of every part of the UK public sector becoming an accredited Living Wage employer, and including contracted out services within this, would be an estimated £1.3bn.”
Women benefit disproportionately from minimum wage laws precisely because they are disproportionately low-paid. It also highlights the virtual absence of mechanisms to enforce equal pay. Recent efforts by the government to encourage employers to address their gender pay problems are making a stuttering start. Gender pay reporting legislation requires employers with 250 or more employees to publish statutory calculations every year showing how large the pay gap is between their male and female employees. The website has been open for submissions for almost a year and so far, only 6% of organisations have sent in their data.
The data is now public. Organisations where the pay gap goes against women include Npower (19%), Cooperative Bank (30.3%), EasyJet (51.7%) and Phase Eight (64.8%).
Easyjet’s accompanying report demonstrates a tone-deaf understanding of the situation. ‘Pilots are predominantly male and their higher salaries, relative to other employees, significantly increases the average male pay at easyJet’. Just 6% of its UK pilots — a role which pays £92,400 a year on average — are women, whereas 69% of lower-paid cabin crew are women, with an average annual salary of £24,800. There is no explanation of how EasyJet have attempted to challenge this state of affairs.
Most of the big-name companies represented in the 500 reports insist that men and women are paid equally when in the same role and argue that it is an imbalance of women in lower-paying roles that skews the gender pay gap results.
The Financial Times (FT) highlights companies that are producing statistical data that appear to be improbable, like companies with a 0% difference and companies that have altered their data more than once. Unnamed ‘pay consultants’ have suggested that in digging up the data, employers have discovered they might be inadvertently breaking the law. The FT appears to be preparing the ground for no action on gender pay because the statistics are too difficult to collect.
A separate FT article in January noted that the ‘threats’ of sanctions and enforcements by the government are not enforceable, this time quoting employment specialist law firm Blake Morgan. There is currently a consultation out about what the sanctions should be, which was a criticism raised by trade unions before the scheme was introduced.
It is true that there is no short-term fix, and an attempt to name and shame has many flaws, but it is becoming clear that excuses are being lined up and that this scheme will be ineffectual. The pay discrimination is so widespread and so extreme that naming and shaming cannot be a solution. There are simply too many companies practising huge pay discrimination. They can hide in the crowd.
In the meantime, Carrie Gracie has highlighted yet again BBC gender pay inequality and a hot mike recording of John Humphreys and Jon Sopel complaining about her was leaked. An anonymous article by ‘BBC Women’ published on Comment is Free emphasises the fear that women feel speaking out and relates the lack of discussion to gaslighting, making women in the BBC feel that they are creating a problem not the other way around. The discussion between John and Jon and the reaction from the BBC seems to confirm that. Conditions at the BBC are simply the most public aspect of a near-universal problem.
The growing #MeToo movement – started in Hollywood in response to some truly shocking revelations about sexual harassment, notably by Harvey Weinstein – is calling ‘Time’s Up’ on silence.
The recently launched Time’s Up campaign, publicised largely by social media is currently a collection of 300 Hollywood women who have established a $13 million legal defence fund to provide support for women and men who’ve experienced sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace. This is a struggle against silencing women through non-disclosure agreements and the Time’s Up statement specifically acknowledges lower paid working women from other industries in their statement.
This movement to call out injustice faced by women is spreading and the collective approach is welcome. Because women really are on the frontline of poverty and the government policy of austerity.
Burden of austerity
Not only do women receive lower wages, they also disproportionately work in the parts of the economy that is being cut hardest, the public sector pay freezes and cuts have seen women disproportionately lost their jobs or forced go part time since 2010. That impact is still being felt a decade on from the Great Recession.
In addition, because public sector services are being closed down or reduced, the burden to perform these tasks – childcare, caring for elderly or disabled relatives has fallen to women as the traditional care givers, but also because they are being shut out of work, under paid and under employed. This triple-whammy effect is what is meant by the statistic that 86% of the cuts have fallen on the shoulders of women.
Some of the more excruciating examples of the cuts to social care come from women subjected to domestic violence who are falling through the cracks. Two women a week in England and Wales are killed by their partners/ex-partners. Yet across the country women’s refuge budgets have been slashed by nearly a quarter over the past seven years. Three quarters councils in England have reduced the amount spent on refuges since 2010. The system is at breaking point.
Worse – refuges who have won bids are reporting that they have not received the funds 8 months later, forcing one shelter to put its entire staff on notice out of fear of imminent closure. There are so many shocking highlights of how these cuts have hollowed out services – a month after Grenfell a ceiling of a refuge in the same borough collapsed and in a report by Women’s Aid, they announced that 78 women and 78 children were turned away from refuges in a single day in 2016.
The Tories announced £100million funding for services until 2020, with half allocated to local authorities in the form of ring-fenced grants. But this doesn’t have to be spent just on refuges – also homeless people, drug addicts or older people. This is miserably low amount given the scale of the problems.
Little known public proposals by the government plan to remove refuges and other short term supported housing from the welfare system, which could leave vulnerable women fleeing abusive partners unable to pay for their accommodation using housing benefit, the last guaranteed source of income available to refuges. On average, housing benefit makes up 53% of refuge funding.
In order to analyse how far women have come in a hundred years, we can’t look at the successful outliers who have done well, we should look at those who are at the very bottom and evaluate how far the positive changes made by women have affected all women.
The challenges that were faced by the Suffragettes in the early twentieth century for equal pay, better working conditions, housing, health and control over their bodies are still largely our unfinished business.
Even if the media are not watching and it is difficult to simply be believed, it is important to remember that women’s lives are deeply affected by the impact of austerity and should be central to challenging it, because the silent majority is building and those standing in our way will be on the wrong side of history.