Women are assigned less value than men. Therefore women earn less money. And with money comes power and flexibility. In order to evoke change and illustrate this harsh reality, the Swedish Women’s Lobby started the campaign “15.51” in 2012. 15.51 refers to the time when women (based on a Swedish average, and on a normal working day of 8am-5pm) start working for free. This means that after 15.51 (now up to 15.53) women should go home, because they are no longer getting paid.
Similar ways to illustrate the wage gap between men and women have been used in the past. In those instances, the perspective has been to show how much longer women need to work in order to get paid the equivalent of their male counterparts. However, when the experiment is inverted, as in the Swedish campaign, the image becomes clearer and more scary for employers. Having staff leaving early? Before 4 pm? Scandal! Perhaps by seeing the pay gap in this way, employers will feel more inclined to concern themselves with whether their staff receive equal pay for equal labour. As most of us probably recognise, our bosses do not exactly like us leaving early.
This brings another question to mind, however: how do we decide the comparative value of forms of labour that are not identical? In the UK, in 2014, ASDA* workers brought a lawsuit against ASDA on the basis of unequal wage gaps. Female supermarket staff claimed that they were not being paid an equal salary for equal work. This lawsuit can be seen as a test of unbiased job evaluation. How do we value work and workers? How do we decide what is and isn’t equal? And maybe more importantly, who decides? Lauren Lougheed, the solicitor leading the ASDA case argues that the work the women do in the stores is of equal value to the work that men are doing in the distribution centres. Clearly someone in charge of deciding ASDA’s pay hierarchy does not think so.
Another well-known incident topping the headlines a year ago was when Nigel Farage, UKIP**, claimed that working mothers are worth less than men in the City. Commentators came to the aid claiming that this is not the case: of course working mothers are worth as much as men! It was also argued that working mothers bring new experiences and qualities to the table. In my belief, both camps are right. I agree with everyone shouting at Farage. Farage’s comment was wrong. Purely so on the basis that women and men are of equal worth. But when it comes to the labour market, the stark truth remains that women, and especially working mothers, are perceived as less valuable than men. Denying this is turning a blind eye to the structural problem of wage inequality and value discrimination within the job market. Being a working mother currently equates with having less value in the labour market than your male colleagues.
This is because the labour market is not built in a cultural vacuum, but rather as an extension of society’s system of values. In turn, this system of values is not created by a few individuals, the City of London or ASDA. Value systems are created and reproduced every day, by all of us, by society as a whole. There are powerful, historic structures pulling women away from paid work. But there are also mechanisms that continuously put less value on female dominated work and stop women from gaining the higher salaries that their competencies and responsibilities should reflect. The issue is that many women work in demanding yet value discriminated jobs. Female dominated workplaces are seen as less important, less demanding, and hence women are paid less. Who decided that the women at ASDA supermarkets, working at the till, stocking shelves and interacting with customers have a less demanding and valuable job than the men working in the back of the shop- lifting heavy things? Structures did. It is value discrimination in action.
Once upon a time, it was decided that working at the till was a “woman’s job” and therefore less valued than working in the back of the shop, doing the “heavy lifting”. Socialising, being nice to rude customers and dealing with spilled milk was not considered as demanding. These are stereotypes built upon an unfair biological prioritisation: one function requires physical strength, while the other demands emotional intelligence. The requirement to possess a certain degree of strength naturally excludes women from that domain of work, as well as its higher wages, while simultaneously ostracising men who exercise “soft-skills” that are perceived as weak and intended for women. These distinctions within the job market are reproduced over and over again. And yet, values can change. In Sweden, women traditionally dealt with cows and milking. That is, until the dairy production became industrialised when automated milking technology was introduced to the industry. Thus, the same kind of job- milking the cows (now with the assistance of technical aids) came to be seen as more valuable than it had been before. Unfortunately, another stark difference has also arisen. The gender roles have been flipped alongside the technological improvement: men perform the job (and get the increased pay to reflect it).
On the bright side, there is a shift in the wage gap. Since the Swedish campaign started, the improvement rate has been 1 minute every year. With this speed, salaries will not be equal until 65 years from now. To change patterns of value discrimination it is not just up to individual women to shout loud about their worth at the annual pay rise meeting with the boss. As many actors as possible need to stand behind a pay policy that makes it possible to change the relative wage gap that underpaid women, and some men, are faced with. All you women who earn less than your colleagues despite equal work and equal qualifications, do please leave work early today and baffle your work colleagues and ever so more, your boss! Sweep the issue from under the carpet! And let us hope that in, let’s say, 2017, the improvement rate has sped up to more than 1 minute per year so that women can go home after 5pm!
*Asda is an American-owned British-based supermarket chain
**UKIP stands for the UK Independence Party. It is a Eurosceptic and right-wing populist political party