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So are we equal now?

Now is a great time to be a young woman. Girls outperform boys in secondary and further education - in England in 1998, 49 percent of girls aged 16 gained five or more A-C passes at GCSE compared with 40 percent of boys, and 32 percent of girls aged 17 to 19 gained two or more A-level passes or equivalent compared with 27 percent of boys (Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC)). The newspapers report that prospective parents now hope for girls rather than boys - and is it any surprise, when public discussion is filled with fear about a new generation of losing, confusing, delinquent lads?

But wait. Lest we get complacent about women's newfound status, plenty of statistics are bandied around to show that we ain't there yet. In 1997 full-time women employees earned only 80 percent of the average hourly earnings of full-time male employees. Only 51 percent of mothers with children under five are in work, and of these, 64 percent work part-time (EOC). Earning or not, women continue to shoulder the burden of housework, cooking and childcare.

So who is right? Are women now on top, still underneath, or finally equal? Whatever the answer, the statistics do not help much.

While statistics showing women's continued inequality in the workplace give an accurate snapshot of the overall picture now, how useful are they in showing the trends towards change? As journalist Natasha Walter points out in The New Feminism, 'the young, educated woman at the end of the twentieth century is a new kind of woman, with quite different experiences and ambitions from her mother's generation'. She shows that there are more female professionals under 35 than over 35, and that women under 24 who have a degree or have been through higher education earn 92 percent of their male counterparts' wages (as opposed to the 80 percent ratio overall).

The overall statistics on income differentials tend to mask the changes now benefiting younger generations of women. The New Earnings Survey 1998 showed that the average gross weekly pay for men in their forties was £481 - a long way ahead of women's £326. The gap was narrower among thirtysomethings - £442 for men and £350 for women - and narrower still for those in their early twenties, when men earned £292 compared to women's £243. So the younger you are, the less the difference between men and women's pay is likely to be.

There is also a more fundamental problem with trying to measure sexual equality purely on a numerical basis - especially today. The notion that equality has not arrived until there is a '50/50 split' in every profession and institution assumes that all men and all women want the same things from life and work; when now, the goalposts are shifting as quickly as Geri Halliwell's career path.

When there is a disparity in women's participation in any aspect of work, it tends to be assumed that this is the result of discrimination. But how easy is it to make the distinction between discrimination and personal choice? When the EOC makes the point that 'men and women tend to be employed in different occupations, and "men's jobs" are likely to be more highly paid', does this still mean that women could not enter highly paid professions if they wanted to, as would have been the case in the past?

Is the fact that a larger proportion of women than men work part-time due to unwelcome pressure placed on women, or is this something that more men would do if they could? As an increasingly sympathetic attitude grows throughout society for paternity leave and job flexibility to allow men to spend more time with their children, and as divorced men go into battle over child custody cases, is childcare to be seen as a burden unfairly imposed on women - or an opportunity unfairly denied to men?

It is difficult to answer these questions, because they relate to a broader shift than simply the division of pay and responsibilities between the sexes. In relation to sexual equality, the significance of the world of home and the world of work have both transformed over recent years.

The argument for equality was always based on a clear conception of the importance of people's actions in the public domain. When every achievement that counted took place in the world outside the home, it was relatively straightforward to set a universal standard of equality to which women aspired. Now, however, both men and women's expectations of what they can achieve in 'the outside world' seem to have diminished, while individual lifestyle is seen as more important than ever before. One consequence of this has been that the distinction between 'being equal' in society and 'doing what you want' in your personal life is not so easy to draw.

The importance attached to women's equal participation in the world of work was never any mystery to me. Growing up in a small Midlands village, the contrast between the women who stayed at home, stranded with the washing and shopping and the same domestic female faces every day, and their husbands who drove off to town to work, was stark. Even though I really preferred hoovering or daytime TV to most of the jobs the husbands would do, I always just knew that it had to be better to get out there, meet people, earn money. The world of the housewife was one that was so obviously narrow, mundane and to be avoided at all costs.

But watching the re-runs of Carla Lane's terrible 1970s comedy Butterflies, which focuses on the frustrated passions of a bored middle-class housewife, it struck me just how peculiar that traditional pattern seems today. What housewife now, with two grown-up sons, would not get a job if she wanted one? More significant, perhaps, is that the domestic set-up run by Carla Lane's heroine - meant to epitomise the normality and banality of the nuclear family - just seems odd.

The latest edition of Social Trends, published by the Office for National Statistics, indicates that the average size of households has almost halved since 1900 to 2.4 people per household, and that in 1997, there were 309 000 marriages - the lowest figure since 1917. At the same time the Government Actuary predicted that the proportion of the adult population that is married will fall to 45 percent by the year 2020, and that this will not be made up for by the number of cohabiting couples. In 1997 Social Trends predicted that the proportion of one-person homes would rise from 18 percent in 1971 to 36 percent by 2016; and in 1995 the report showed that more women were having babies in their early thirties than in their early twenties. That women are choosing to have children later in life or not at all is frequently reported. The average age for a first marriage is rising - in 1996, it was 28.5 years old for men and 26.3 for women, compared to 25.7 and 23.4 respectively in 1983.

Despite the more sensational claims, none of these figures indicates the end of family life as we know it. (For example, an increase in single households may show that young people are shying away from commitment, but it will also be a consequence of an ageing population who are able to live independently for longer.) People are still marrying, cohabiting, procreating, and doing housework. What these trends do indicate, though, is that the pattern of male breadwinner/female housewife/children hardly exists today. And this has major implications for women's status.

If traditional roles can no longer be taken for granted, the rigid link between women and the home, where looking after the family was seen as women's main role in society, becomes less intractable. The way younger generations organise their lives, and their attitude towards housework and work, changes. In the same way, women's lives differ greatly according to their social status, the jobs they do, and the way they view their domestic responsibilities. Women now spend longer in education and in a single, independent, working life before they marry (if at all); if they have children they tend to do so later in life, and as mothers they are more likely to work than not. 'Family planning' literally means that families can be planned around other priorities far more than was possible three decades ago. All of this means that people's decisions about family life, and the advantages and disadvantages that go with it, encompass a broader range of individual choices than ever before.

Margaret Forster's bestselling memoir Hidden Lives explores the lives of three generations of women - her grandmother, her mother and herself - born and marrying into different social classes. One moving passage describes the astonishment expressed by Forster's mother when she visits her newlywed daughter's flat and witnesses both the comparative ease of Forster's domestic tasks and her husband's willingness to share them. 'What did I have to clean, for a start?' narrates Forster. 'I pushed a Hoover over a fitted green carpet, I pushed a squeezy mop over smooth linoleum, I wiped my precious fridge and my equally pristine cooker - there was no labour, no scrubbing and huffing and puffing, desperately waging an eternal war against the filth of open fires.' All in direct contrast to the burden of housework faced by her mother.

Forster's story indicates the extent to which housework, cooking and childcare, when no longer seen as the sole preserve and function of the married woman, become something quite unlike the work done by the housewife of Butterflies. A 'woman's work' remains banal drudgery, but if it does not define your life it can be fitted around the more exciting, challenging things that you do. Forster is a wife and mother; but she is identified as a teacher, then as a famous novelist. Her domestic tasks are subordinate to her main identity and can, with the help of technical progress and money, be completed with relative ease. Forster concludes her memoir with spirit: 'Everything, for a woman, is better now, even if it is still not as good as it could be. To forget or deny that is an insult to the women who have gone before.'

Okay, fine - but Forster is, after all, a professional woman with a fulfilling career. What about those women who still stay at home, taking on the housewife role, or those who work at lower status part-time jobs so that they can fulfil their domestic responsibilities? In 1997 only 18 percent of mothers with children under five worked full-time, and of employed women with children aged 11 and over, fewer than half had full-time jobs (EOC). For these women, everything might seem simply a continuation of the past - but a closer look shows that it is not.

There is a difference between being trapped in the home and deciding to stay there. More importantly, there is a difference between a society-wide assumption that a woman's only important role is in the home, and a growing acceptance that working, staying home or doing both is an equally valid choice. This growing acceptance of women's wider role is partly due to the relative progress towards equality between the sexes; but it is largely due to the transformed character of work.

The significance of the world of work has changed substantially over the past 15 or so years - for men as well as women. Work, when understood as a stable job for life to provide a family wage, arguably formed a far greater part of an individual's identity than it is able to now. Short-term contracts, temporary jobs, flexible working practices and the increasing numbers of people who are self-employed or who do a number of part-time jobs or job-shares, tend to mean that 'who you are' is not necessarily reducible to 'what you do' - or if it is, the meaning is very different to the past.

Particularly for young, single, professional people, it can seem as though work is the thing they live for. But 'job-as-identity' was never reducible to the number of hours you spent at work, or the amount of bar-time spent with colleagues. In working-class occupations like mining or engineering, your job formed the fabric of your everyday existence - how you voted, who you married, where you lived, which pubs you drank in, where your children went to school and what they would do when they grew up. A world of temporary, flexible jobs simply cannot create this all-encompassing experience - it is more likely to bring a succession of changing drinking partners, and wages channelled into disposable income.

Women trapped as housewives in the family were not only denied independent earnings, but access to the kind of solidarities, struggles and public issues brought to the fore in the workplace. Yet today, as everybody agrees, 'the personal is political' - you are how you live, how you dress and how you feel. When there is increasingly little to expect from work and the community surrounding it, when there is nobody to vote for, little to believe in and nothing to join apart from the gym, you have to look to your personal life for a sense of fulfilment. And when fulfilment is seen as something you are more likely to achieve in your private life than through your public role in society, 'equality' becomes less tangible a concept.

Two reports launched in July this year revealed how the expectations of men and women today have changed. A survey of women's attitudes to their careers, launched by Helen Wilkinson of the Blairite think-tank Demos, was used to castigate women for becoming too much like men - prepared to use sex to advance their careers, drinking too much and leading unhealthy, manic lifestyles. On the same day, a report in the journal Addiction Today claimed that men were becoming 'shopping addicts'. So while women are told off for becoming too work-orientated, men seem to be focusing more on traditionally female preoccupations - shopping, health, children.

Despite the presentation of such 'findings' as a simple swap-around in male and female values, what has really changed are the values and expectations of society as a whole. Both men and women increasingly see the public world of work and politics as unfulfilling and empty, and focus their ambitions and desires around their personal lives and leisure activities. Women are finally accepted into the public domain when they are not sure they want to be there, while men lobby for the chance to be a part of the domestic world. In this context, when there is no straightforward goal, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what 'equality' means at all.

Maybe it is time to give it up - to recognise that yes, men and women do have equality of opportunity, by and large. The problem is that they have equal opportunity to do not very much.

To discuss the ideas and issues raised in this article, go to:

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999

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