By Abbie Winfield
It feels like a long time ago that I first became aware of a bridge between myself and the boys in my class. Somewhere amongst a background of enforced cross country runs, meticulously planned non-uniform school days and tireless attempts at navigating the social etiquette of online platforms (Just how was I expected to express myself properly in just 140 characters?), I became aware of subtle differences in what I could get away with compared to my male counterparts. Don’t be too pushy in the group project. Wear some makeup but don’t overdo it. Skirt long, collar high.
Gender stereotypes are as difficult to evade as they are to understand, and I imagine a similar social tightrope is laid out for the male perspective. However, this shared social accordance does not equate to acceptance. The last few decades, with the ‘fourth wave’ of feminism, have seen an impetus for change. So while those pre-pubescent school photos may be fated to stay with us forever, the state of social norms seems to be shifting.
This sense of change, of course, is not restricted solely to my own experience. It’s visible along Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, the centre stage of the recent Women’s March, the Lebanese courtrooms, with the repeal of laws allowing rapists to be exonerated should they marry their victims, and even daily across our social media platforms via the #MeToo Movement. Across judicial, social, and hierarchical platforms, the ascribed status of women is being challenged. And yet, there is one platform which remains particularly stubborn; the economic one.
In 1963, forty-three years after women had finally won the vote, the United States passed the Equal Pay Act subsequently making it a criminal offence for employers to pay unequal wages purely on the basis of sex. In the same year, Betty Friedan, author of the infamous ‘The Feminine Mystique’ helped spark the second wave of feminism with the publication of her research on suburban life. Friedan highlighted how “In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens”. By pointing out the façade of status without responsibility, Freiden acknowledged the elephant in the room, allowing the unspoken question of American housewives to be voiced; ‘Is this all?’
Although almost half a century has passed, the words of Friedan still resonate. Most of us will be more than aware that gender disparity in the workplace continues across the globe. Financially speaking, this disparity between men and women equates to 79 cents to the dollar in the USA. In the UK it is closer to 90 cents and in South Korea it is just 62 cents. These figures are specific to full-time workers and may vary across country, across age and across race, but in no place are they insignificant. Even in cases where the estimated difference is most minimal, at just 4% for example, this still equates to 241 million dollars of loss per year. What is perhaps worse is the explanation behind this. The margin of ‘4-8%’ is commonly described as the ‘unexplained pay gap’ – solely attributed to the existence of discrimination.
Moreover, it is not only wages which appear to be lacking; the disparity in pay is akin to the disparity in participation. Whilst the numbers of women in mid-level managerial posts has snowballed in recent decades, the numbers nose-dive the higher up the career ladder you climb. This glass ceiling can best be seen by the 2018 Fortune500 results; out of 500 world leading CEOs, just 27 are women. Perhaps somewhat closer to home is the London Stock Exchange example; of the top 100 companies compared, seven were run by women. This is seven more than fifty years ago, but still ten less than companies, in the same category, operated by men called ‘John’. As humorous as this may initially sound, it leaves a scary legacy in its wake. To be exact, a legacy lasting 115 years – until 2133 – the estimated date which gender equality will be achieved. A timeline of gender equality which equates our lives today, to that of 1903.
These disparities of pay and participation are of course not uniform across all professions. Some careers demonstrate far more equal opportunity than others. For instance, the work of Claudia Goldin, Harvard economist, highlights an unforeseen reversal of expectation wherein the wage pay gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries are now shrinking at a faster rate than in the more ‘traditional business’ sector. Whilst the latter was at one point a welcoming entry point for the young secretariat and the former a sphere for only the most anomalous female scientist, this trend has now reversed. The flexible working hours, career mobility and government initiatives offered by STEM sectors have re-shaped its appeal. Engineering is no longer a single gendered career, and performance measures which prioritise achievement over clocked hours are beneficial for all workers, parents or not. This change is still in progress, but it would appear that as catchy as the phrase may be, ‘Working nine to five’ is no longer the way to make your living.
For the case of gender equality, an increased availability of choice appears to be a successful path. When governments initiate programs to widen the parameters of the workplace, as in the cases of Sweden and Norway, similar success can also be seen. Childcare legislation which splits care equally between parents, for example, not only removes the outdated assumption that women will be the primary caregivers, but it also helps project a revolution of social norms. Recent surveys from Norway show how this is already underway with men now being questioned by potential employers as to why they chose to not take paternity leave – an unimaginable proposition just thirty years ago. Whilst the answer to gender equality cannot be found by questioning any gender more than the other, untangling conceptions of gender stereotypes, such as the knot between ‘masculinity’ and ‘breadwinner’ offers a result from which all genders stand to benefit. This is of course not unique to the economic world. Gender and identity are part and product of all parts of society and the achievement of our ambition cannot be attained neither by pointing the finger nor by apathetic expectation. As the ‘mother of feminism’ Gloria Steinman states; “It is not about getting a piece of the pie. It is about baking a new pie”. A recipe too complex to be written by itself.
By Abbie Winfield
Image: Melinda Nilsson