Feminism is incompatible with capitalism
In the tech industry, to which Nadella was referring, women receive on average $6,358 per year less than their male counterparts. Harvard professor Dr Claudia Godin’s research shows that in the financial services women earn 66 per cent of what their male colleagues earn. Comedian Sarah Silverman has raised almost $100,000 of the total $30 trillion she estimates women in the US lose out on per year because of unequal pay. Of Dr Godin’s research, only as a dental hygienist, HR specialist or advertising salesperson would women earn the same as men. The problem is both endemic and pervasive.
The focus for improving institutional sexism in the work place is thus placed upon improving the gender pay gap. Solutions to alleviate the problem have been widely debated and disputed. Some argue that women should be remunerated for their ‘household chores’ (which would hardly serve to de-gender the concept of housework and thus maintains the sexist ideology that is associated with it); others say that working hours need to be more flexible to accommodate working mothers, while others argue men should simply help out at home more. Women on average do about twice as much housework as men. All of these arguments have their merits and de-merits but none of them really get to the heart of the issue.
The crux being that even if women are paid the same as men, this will not change the fact that institutional sexism exists at almost every level of society. In fact, the focus on equal pay arguably clouds the real issues that are causing the persistence of sexist attitudes within society. Earning the same as men won’t give women an equal social standing. There are still cases of men in lower economic positions than women who will cat-call or grope them on the street. There will still exist everyday sexism on a wide scale; it is naïve to think that high pay for women will alleviate this. Workplace sexism won’t disappear with female CEOs (there are some and it’s still pervasive). Men in positions of relative power will still be able to and choose to pay for sex with women who are in a relative position of low power, such as trafficked sex-workers.
Emphasis on equal pay, whilst laudable and logical, does not address the fact that our society is structured as a white, capitalist patriarchal society. To overcome sexism it is necessary to combat this system as a whole, rather than focusing specifically on equal pay. The whole system must be critiqued and examined.
Capitalism will only serve to compound inequalities of some kind. Many women vying for top jobs, for example, would often (but not always) be from middle-upper class backgrounds and thus be at an advantage over a working-class woman who was perhaps less well educated. Such a woman doesn’t benefit from higher pay for Microsoft executives or bankers. The wage for low-skilled workers will always be low, irrespective of gender. Getting more women into politics or as top judges alienates large swathes of women who have different aspirations (this is arguably also true of quotas to get ethnic minorities into leading roles, both male and female). Bell Hooks suggests that a focus on equal pay and getting women into top jobs is reflective of a ‘bourgeois class bias’. It doesn’t reflect a diversity of wants and needs.
We need to have a discussion about a system whereby many under-represented groups, including ethnic minorities and people living with disabilities, are structurally disadvantaged and have their access to high pay and opportunities restricted by white male ruling élites. Sexism and oppression did not begin with capitalism but it has certainly been exacerbated by it, and sexism helps uphold capitalism. Such a capitalist system has led to unprecedented levels of inequality and the consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few (mostly men).
Encouraging capitalism means promoting individualism over collective action. The celebrating of female entrepreneurs is an example of this. It is easy to point to a female entrepreneur such as Oprah Winfrey and come to the conclusion that there is no sexism or racism and that capitalism helps advance us all. Against this backdrop many women and vulnerable groups around the world are being exploited in a neoliberal world order.
Feminism has historically been about eradicating and opposing inequality. Feminism is thus incompatible with capitalism, as this is a system that compounds and exacerbates such inequality. It is, simply put, a system that requires inequality for it to thrive and function effectively. Earning a lot of money won’t eradicate these inequalities, it will exacerbate them, as people around the world will continue to live in incredible impoverishment and harsh conditions.
Focusing on equal pay can land us in dangerous territory then, as we can forget the inequalities that go hand in hand with capitalism. Capitalism is unfortunately here to stay (at least in the short to medium term) so it is important to reduce the overwhelming gap in pay and advocate more equality in the current capitalist system. But we need to look more deeply at the issues and think of plausible alternatives to our current societal and economic model, which will forever uphold a white, capitalist patriarchy.
Amit Singh is a graduate of the London School of Economics who works on the World Views of Nature Project, examining how local philosophies should have more sway in creating international policy.
Read the July/August issue of New Internationalist: Feminism fights back