5 July 1985
Jobs for women
THOUGH three-fifths of the world’s people live their lives by the rhythm of the seasons - bending and straightening as the earth breathes in and out, submitting to the sun, praying for the rain. ploughing and sowing and waiting and weeding and reaping and ploughing again - the rest are ruled by different rhythms.
Two-fifths of the workforce of the world - nearly one billion people - are hitched to the machine that runs modern society. It is a machine whose iron hands reach into every country of the world, extended on the arms of modern transport.
Some countries have been barely touched with just a few factories and an airport to link them with the global machine. In others the iron embrace is complete, with most people thinking of work in terms of wages and weekends, shifts and promotions. In North America, for example, 96 per cent of men with jobs and 98 per cent of women were working in services or industry in 1980.
In modern industrial society jobs have always tended to be created on the assumption that workers have no domestic responsibilities. They are expected to be available at places and times to suit the employer. This is the main reason why women, though half of the world’s population, are only a third of the world’s official income-earning labour force. Though this proportion has changed only slightly in recent years - in 1950, for instance, women were 31 per cent of the income-earning labour force, compared with a total of 35 per cent today - the actual numbers have swelled considerably. Over the last decade, for example, one hundred million more women came into the labour force and there are now an estimated 676 million women in the world in wage employment.
Some good news of the Decade is the increase in the number of countries - from 28 in 1978 to 90 in 1983 - who have equal pay legislation on their statute books, making it illegal to give men and women different wages for the same work. Though this has been soured slightly by the minority of countries who have actually reversed their equal pay laws during the Decade, it is still a major advance.
At last it is possible to detect a slight narrowing in the wage gap between men and women. One study of 24 countries around the world found that in 1975 a woman working in manufacturing industry earned an average of only 70 cents for every dollar earned by a man doing the same or similar work. In 1982 she earned 73 cents for every dollar in his wage packet.
These averages do. of course. conceal very great regional differences. Women in Japan and the Republic of Korea, for instance, take home less than half the wages earned by men, while women in Denmark. Norway. Sweden, El Salvador. Burma and Sri Lanka fare best. with average earnings under 20 per cent lower than men’s.
These figures also fail to take into account the millions of women - working as tailors at home, as seasonal agricultural labourers, as maids - who tend to be excluded by both equal pay legislation and official wage statistics. In Peru. Nigeria and Bangladesh, for example, agricultural workers are excluded from equal pay laws. In the Philippines it is people working at home or in small businesses who are excluded. Yet there is evidence that it is in these sorts of occupation that wage differentials between men and women may be the greatest. In the urban areas of Java, for instance, the proportion of women earning less than 3,000 rupiahs a month is ten times the proportion of men.
Though tinkering with wage laws can do - and has done - a great deal to reduce the inequality between women’s and men’s earnings, it can do nothing to affect the more fundamental inequality underlying the fact that, despite the new laws, women continue to earn less than men doing similar work. In the end it is women’s social role - the role that compels them to carry the burden of domestic work alone - that is lodged at the heart of the problem.
Because of their responsibilities in the home, most women are simply not able to put in the same number of hours at their jobs as men. In Sri Lanka. for instance, women work an average often and a half hours less per week than men in manufacturing industries. In other countries, too (in Egypt, Singapore,
Australia, Japan, the UK, for example) the difference is somewhere between four and five hours. In fact, overall, women employed full-time in the rich world do an average of three hours less paid work per week than men - but over seventeen hours more unpaid domestic work than men.
Women’s domestic responsibility also cuts into their ability, and inclination, to do shiftwork and overtime and means they are more likely to try for part-time work when it is available. Both factors result in a shorter paid working week than men have. In the UK, for instance. 41 per cent of women with jobs are working part-time, compared with just two per cent of men.
Another factor that helps push women’s wages below men’s is time-based pay rises. Because women are often forced to, or choose to. interrupt their working lives to have children, they tend to fall behind men taken on at the same time.
A third reason why women earn less - again related to their domestic roles - is because they are usually not entitled to the tax and fringe benefits available to men. In Zambia, for instance, women are taxed at a higher rate on the assumption that men will meet most of the family’s expenses.
The penalties continue even beyond women’s official working life. Because they work fewer hours, have earned less money, and usually have an earlier age of retirement, women’s pensions - when these are available at all - end up being lower too. In the Federal Republic of Germany. for instance, retired women receive, on average, only half of the full pension.
But the most important reason why women earn less than men is not because women do fewer hours and get fewer benefits. It is because women tend to do different work to men. Equal pay for equal work is a fine guiding principle. But, as ILO points out, ‘there is no equal work’. And, once again. women’s domestic role is at the heart of the problem. Not only does the quantity of housework restrict the quantity of paid work a woman is able to do, but the nature of housework has come to define the nature of paid work they are offered. The social role that dictates that women should cook, clean, make and mend clothes and care for children inside the home stays with women when they work outside it. impelling them towards particular occupations consistent with the role of domestic nurturer. Domestic work is the work women have been forced to do, and it now tends to be seen as the sort of work for which women are best suited. Two-thirds of European women who are out at work have jobs in the service sector, where they comprise 45 per cent of the workforce. In Latin America, too, and the Caribbean, women far outnumber men employed in services - by a ratio of over four to one in the majority of countries in those regions. In industry, on the other hand, the situation is reversed, with men outnumbering women by around three to one in most countries.
If ‘women’s work’ was as well-paid as men s work’ there would be less cause for concern. But the majority of ‘service’ occupations in which women predominate - as cleaners, waitresses, nurses, food and textile workers - are badly paid. Just as society undervalues the unpaid domestic work women do in the home, so those same skills - dexterity, sympathy, patience - are undervalued when applied to work outside in the world of employment.
Taken together, the pressures that lead women to work unequal hours and to choose unequal work make it very unlikely that many will rise to top administrative or managerial positions. Such jobs require both a confidence and a freedom to work long hours that few women possess. Instead, talented, hard-working women often find themselves working as secretaries or clerical assistants to their male bosses. While men outnumber women managers and administrators by over three to one in the US, Norway and Australia, for instance, women are over five times as likely to be working as secretaries or clerks than men in those countries.
The Decade of Women has also been the Decade of Recession as countries and corporations reeled from the impact of the oil shock of 1975 and staggered through the tremors that followed, One effect of the increase in oil prices has been for corporations to cut their labour costs wherever possible.
Unemployment statistics are not regularly collected in the majority of developing countries. But in the rich world, where such figures are available, there is evidence that women outnumber men among the unemployed. In the OECD countries, for example. 7.4 per cent of the male workforce and 8.2 per cent of women were unemployed in 1982.
What is more, unemployment figures for women often underestimate the problem. Research in Europe, for instance, indicates that only 42 per cent of women who have lost their jobs or are looking for work ever register as unemployed. These figures suggest that, when unemployment is high, women are more likely to be out of work than men.
Women’s jobs tend to be threatened more than men’s for two major reasons. First, many women are employed in less-skilled occupations easily replaced by machines. Another reason why women’s jobs are more vulnerable is because they tend to involve temporary or part-time work - often because there is no other work available for them. Women tend to change their jobs more often too, leaving to look after a new baby or to follow a husband transferred to another part of the country. Women are also less likely to be members of, or actively involved in, a trades union and have fewer rights as employees. This makes them less able to organise to protect their jobs.
Some of women’s service jobs are less vulnerable than their industrial jobs, however - both because they tend to require more skill (it is not yet possible to replace a nurse or a primary-school teacher by a machine), but also because they are lower paid. Ironically, the very injustices that lead women to accept low wages for their work in the first place means that, for the time being, many of them are still cheaper than machines and their jobs are safe.