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Still an old wives' tale

Sara Hardy debunks some modern myths about women's status

In the wake of Opportunity 2000, the campaign which John Major launched last year, everybody seems to agree that women's role in society is changing for the better.

Opportunity 2000 is a consortium of 61 private employers and 11 public bodies ranging from Tesco to the cabinet office. By the year 2000 it aims to improve the 'quality and quantity of women's participation in the workforce' by challenging prejudice against women at work and organising ways to ensure women get promoted. Major specifically promised that every shortlist for public appointment would soon include a woman.

The implication is that discrimination against women is a fading relic of the past. It is now depicted as the preserve of particularly backward individuals, while big employers, the government and the law are all working for women's rights. Mechanisms such as job sharing and career breaks are supposed to be opening up new opportunities for women all the time.

These notions are not restricted to stuffed shirts like John Major. They have achieved a much wider resonance, as women's magazines like Cosmopolitan sing the praises of the New Woman with her smart career, house-handy husband and helpful kids.

So how far does the new wisdom about the rising status of women match the reality of most women's lives today?

CLAIM: 'Women get equal pay'

FACT: Although equal pay legislation has existed since 1975, women's pay remains substantially lower than men's. On average, today women earn 67.6 per cent of the wages of men - and this differential has stayed the same over the past 10 years despite all the laws. This means that few women can have the independence from men that's assumed in the current discussion: the majority of women are still financially reliant on their higher-earning partners. When you earn a third less than your partner, it is not hard to work out which one will stop work to look after children.

CLAIM: 'Women have equal opportunities'

FACT: Women are consigned to the lowest grades and the worst jobs. A recent survey of the NHS - one of the Opportunity 2000 participants, and the biggest employer in the country - found women clustered in the lowest grades, making up 100 per cent of clerical assistants (the lowest grade), and 96 per cent of grade two medical records clerks (the second lowest). The typical woman worker in Britain is more likely to be sitting on a supermarket till in an overall than managing the store dressed in a Chanel suit.

It is a similar picture even among women considered to be high fliers. Take college lecturers. Women make up two thirds of part- time lecturers, and two thirds of the lowest paid college teaching staff. Only two per cent of part-time lecturers qualify for full employment rights, such as maternity rights or sick or redundancy pay. Even in sectors where women go to work in a suit, they occupy lower status jobs than their male counterparts.

CLAIM: 'Women's rights are now protected'

FACT: Women's rights at work remain negotiable. Because so many women work part time, only 54 per cent meet the tough legal requirements on hours of work and length of service which entitle them to employment protection - such as the right to claim that they have been unfairly sacked.

Even maternity rights, assumed by many women to be universal, are heavily qualified. In 1988, 60 per cent of working women qualified for the right to return to work after having a baby (and only 35 per cent did so). Last year one in five pregnant working women got no form of maternity pay. This makes a nonsense of the idea that women can pick up the option of a 'career break'. Most women do not return to the same job after having a baby. Indeed, most have to rely on an alternative source of income - such as their partners.

CLAIM: 'Women do less of the housework these days'

FACT: Although women are going out to work more and more, they still carry the can at home. Half the men in Britain have never prepared a meal, according to the Star (13 November 1991). Yet this is far from a joke. Women do an average of 227 minutes of housework a day, about 27 hours a week. When a woman has a paid job, her man averages 2.5 hours of housework a week. This shrinks to an hour
a week when their partner is not working.
At best, men do a tenth of the housework women do.

On average, women perform 7.7 different domestic tasks each day - cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, etc - while men do just 1.4 tasks. So long as society expects working women to take responsibility for looking after their homes and families, they can't take responsibility for managing offices and factories.

CLAIM: 'Childcare is available for working mothers'

FACT: Childcare is available for only two per cent of under fives, ensuring that women with young children are only able to work part time. There are only about 150 of the much-vaunted workplace nurseries, and these tend to cater for a small number of children. The other alternative for working women with small children is to pass the responsibility to another woman - their own mother. Forty-four per cent of under fives are cared for by their maternal grandmother - making grandmothers the largest provider of childcare in Britain. Women can never play an equal role at work in these circumstances. If a woman has primary responsibility for children and they're sick (or her mother is sick), it's their mother who comes home from work.

Many women may feel sure that their own determination will take them up the career ladder. But the facts of the second-class status which women occupy in Mr Major's Britain tell against this idea. If a woman earns less than her male counterpart, has unequal employment rights and has to take responsibility for housework and childcare, there's only so much a bit of willpower can achieve.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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