Skills – whose skills?

The government has now published its proposal on immigration. It is based on the premise that the country only wants foreign workers who are skilled. Their outlined point system has highlighted one of the problems that plagues pay equality – the definition of skill. On the face of it this is not a gendered issue but a closer look will reveal that combined with the gendered segregation of work the ‘definition of skill’ is responsible for perpetuating women’s relative low pay compared to men. Pay level is not the only proposed entry requirement for people wishing to work in the UK but the focus on it reflects the government’s belief (and many others’) that pay is still the main indicator of skill.

 Despite the intention to lower the minimum salary threshold for ‘skilled jobs’ from £30,000 to £25,600 for those coming to the UK with a job offer, this would still leave swathes of jobs in many sectors deemed out of bounds for foreign workers, particularly out of London.  Social care is in the news as one of those sectors most hit and also the catering industry – both female dominated and reliant on imported labour.

The government’s proposals have also been met with dismay by the UK’s growing fashion manufacturing industry. Skilled jobs such as sewing machinists and cutters will not reach the skilled training requirements for entrants under the new system. Jenny Holloway, owner of London manufacturer Fashion Enter, says “I really object to the fact that our industry is regarded as cheap or low skilled labour and strongly suggest that the government should make the effort to visit manufacturers and see how skilled it is, labelling the new minimum general salary threshold of £25,600 as “unrealistic”.

Academics have long regarded the ‘so called’ objective category of skill as a myth.( Phillips and Taylor 1980, Cockburn 1985).  Far from being an objective fact, skill is often an ideological category imposed on certain types of work by virtue of the sex and power of the workers who perform them.

Historically, one of professional organisations’ and trade unions’ roles has been to protect the status and pay of their workers, creating barriers to entry where necessary. They have always tried to protect the skills cluster in their memberships often in the form protectionist strategies like training and exams as well as other more informal types of closure. This is to maintain the status of those skills, limit entry and ensure higher pay. If too many, and historically it was women, were able to demonstrate those skills and entered the profession or trade it would result in a lowering of status and in market forces lower pay. The status of work (and its accompanying level of pay) is not static. It can be challenged and change. There is an argument that just the very fact that large numbers of women work in an industry will mean it has a lower status. Work has been ‘feminised’ and women carry their lower social status into the workplace (Witz 1990). If you look at areas of work which are highly prized, they are likely to be very male dominated. At the beginnning of the computer age, computer programming was deemed eminently suitable for girls, nimble fingers for the keyboard, patience and attention to detail – women’s work.  In the West as computers’ importance rose computer programme became associated with science, rationality, binarism and masculinity. It was adopted by male hobbyists, gamers and later the entrepreneurs. Bill Gates and Stephen Jobs arrived and the image of a “geek” became synonymous with a technology worker and the shift from a feminine to a masculine skill was fully made. The accompanying shift was from low status to high status skilled work. And pay went up.

Both the gendering and valuing of jobs (not always the same but there is a huge overlap as women dominate low paid industries) can be revealed in some of the equal pay for work of equal value pay discrimination claims. One example I wrote about in my book was the 2010 Birmingham council workers equal pay case, which was won by female employees based on work for equal value. Under a bonus scheme male refuse collection staff sometimes received up to 160% of their basic pay. In one year a refuse collector took home £51,000 while women on the same grade (cleaners) received less than £12,000.

Currently the average pay for an underground train driver’s ( predominantly male)  average base pay of a Tube driver is £55,011.  The majority of London Underground train drivers, approximately 3,000 of them, made £70,000-£80,000 last year when overtime and benefits are included. Compare this to the average salary of a nurse in London which is £29,000.

These figures tell their own story about skill, status and value. The segregation of low paid work makes bringing any equal pay claims impossible.

Surely it is time that unconscious bias in the evaluation of skills  is more widely recognised as a contributing factor to women’s inequality in the workplace. Some companies have individually been doing this for some time, checking their assessment or partnership criteria etc. for signs of bias. But perhaps a more comprehensive approach to what does or doesn’t constitute skill needs to be debated at a social level.