Women’s Work Men’s Work

This is a brief comment on why, overall, women’s jobs are paid less than men, not a critique on the rights or wrongs of different groups of workers taking industrial action. But I write it now because the strike action offers a view on to the pay differentials of one female dominated sector and a male dominated one.

In 2022 average nurses (90% female) pay was £33,384 for a 38hr working week.

Average train drivers (93% male) pay was £59,864 for a 35hr working week

When I said on Twitter that this disparity was a good example of the gendered pay gap due to the gendered horizontal segregation of the workforce, some men responded that it was women’s choice to go into these areas so it was too bad if they were lowly paid. This is a longer response than Twitter allows but hopefully it will also cast some light on a little of the history of our gendered pay gap and why it still very much a part of our lives, due not only to vertical segregation, where generally there are more senior men than women, but also horizontal segregation i.e., where women and men are working in different occupations or sectors, which we then value accordingly.  I will not be covering the other major factor for the pay gap which is that women are far more likely to work part-time than men, taking on the unpaid work of running home and family, although part time work is often associated with sectors dominated by women.

Equal pay legislation has been in place for over forty-five years. We must not forget that before then it was perfectly legal for companies to pay women half what they paid men. It seems incredible today but it was accepted that women were valued less than men in society and that followed them into the workplace.

(For a great reminder of what life was like for a woman working in a male-dominated field in early 1960’s America I recommend reading the novel Lessons in Chemistry! It should have the mouths of our millennial young women open in aghast.)

 This hangover of women’s lesser social status is still with us. We saw a very public example a few years ago when the top female BBC presenters found out that they were being paid substantially less than their male colleagues for doing the same job, and the only possible explanation was that men were more valued than women.

In the UK the Equal Pay Act 1970, driven partly by feminist campaigns, the Ford Dagenham female workers strike of 1968 and the imminent entry into the European Union, was passed in 1970 and came into operation in 1975. This was to give organisations time to get their act together. What also happened was that organisations busied themselves separating women’s jobs from men’s jobs mostly by renaming job titles, physically moving women physically into different parts of the building, and carving up work into different areas etc. to avoid pay comparisons. The horizontal segregation of women within organisations increased.

The limits of equal pay legislation became apparent soon after its implementation in 1975. The fact that men and women were segregated into different jobs meant that direct comparisons then were few and far between and indeed still are. The Equal Pay Act was amended in 1983, following a European directive and a new regulation which provides for claims of equal pay for work of equal value came into force in 1984. This has proved to be an invaluable (if lengthy and complex) route for women, challenging as it does the notion that skills and value are objective. The objectivity of skills was challenged long ago by Phillips and Taylor in their article Sex and Skills (1980)

Some success has been achieved but the process of bringing about the lawsuits is incredibly expensive and lengthy requiring considerable financial backing.  They also require multiple claimants to make it worthwhile. A couple of successful cases have been Asda v Brierley and others (2019) where the mostly female shopworkers (35,000 of them) compared themselves to the men working in the distribution centre. And in an earlier key case, 170 women working in traditionally female dominated roles such as cleaning, care and catering were successful in their individual claims against Birmingham Council (2102) for which they worked, comparing themselves with male workers, such as grave diggers, street cleaners and refuse collectors.  During the seven-week hearing the tribunal heard how a man doing the same pay-graded job as a woman could earn four times more than her. 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 pay grade received less than £12,000. The council appealed and lost in 2012 and is believed to have paid out more than £1bn compensation to thousands of other women, who came forward to make claims. And it is not out of the woods yet.

These equal value claims can only be made if the work is for the same employer.

Feminism has argued for decades that housework should be valued just as much as work outside the home (the concept of work/life balance hasn’t helped). Kat Banyard in her book, The Equality Illusion.  

 notes that women are concentrated in the 5 C’s: cleaning, caring, clerical, cashiering and catering. Many of these jobs are considered ‘women’s work’ i.e. perhaps work they traditionally may have done in the home and for which they are thought more suitable. But the notion of what and what isn’t women’s work changes with time and location. My blog post on women in technology shows how the notion of work becomes gendered and is valued or devalued accordingly.

 These 5 C’s are also sectors which readily adjusted to employ part-timers, mostly women with families. In the 1970’s and 80’s part time jobs were created with mothers in mind. Part-time work is associated with lower rates of pay. These five C’s represent some of the lowest paid sectors in the country. I

When we see the pay of highly-trained nurses and train drivers, or in the case of the Birmingham equal pay case, cleaners and refuse collectors set side by side the differences are surely stark enough to make us (society) ask the question… why do we value some work more than others? Is it a coincidence that the work where women are concentrated is considered less skilled, of lower value and therefore more poorly paid than that of men? I do not think so.  We cannot separate out the unequal pay between men and women without recourse to their ongoing unequal status and value in society.