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Doin' Wot Comes Nat'rally


new internationalist
issue 181 - March 1988

Doin' wot comes nat'rally
Why is a truck-driver paid more than a nurse? A parking-lot
attendant more than a secretary? Anne Phillips argues that women's
jobs are paid less than men's - not because they are less skilled,
but simply because they are done by women.

When we hear something described as 'woman's work', we can be pretty sure this means 'good enough for women, but not good enough for men'. When women are praised for their femininity, there is usually a smirk behind the praise. When they are advised to stick to their womanly sphere, there is often contempt behind the advice.

'Different but equal' has never been a very convincing slogan as the facts make clear. Though there has been an enormous increase in women's waged employment in the last 25 years, they still remain the poor of the world.

In advanced capitalist countries women are now two-fifths of the official labour force. And their share is growing. In the UK, for instance, where unemployment has risen particularly steeply over the last decade, the majority of new jobs created - particularly part-time jobs - are for women. In the US nearly half of all one-year-old children have mothers who go out to work. In fast-developing countries like Brazil and in free trade zones throughout Southeast Asia, it is young women who are overwhelmingly recruited to do the work.

Despite this huge influx of women onto the wage-markets of the world, the features traditionally associated with women's work remain: low pay, low status, job insecurity. There is no country where women's wages are on a par with men's - and no country where men and women do the same kind of work. Even wide-scale equal-pay legislation - most countries have signed the International Labour Office Convention on equal pay - has not resolved the problem. The US led the world with an Equal Pay Act in 1963, but in 1985 the average American woman still earned less than two-thirds of the average man's wage.

The problem is that men and women rarely do the same kind of work. This means that paying men and women the same wage for working side-by-side at the same job barely scratches the surface of pay inequality. This is because, in addition to designating some kinds of jobs as 'woman's work' and others as 'men's work', the work women are expected to do is typically regarded as less skilled than men's. And less skilled automatically means less valuable, thus justifying women's lower pay.

A recent UK study found that 90 per cent of white-collar jobs were routine and mindless, required little initiative and offered virtually no scope for personal control or satisfaction. It also found that 82 per cent of these jobs were done by women. Is this because women have been pushed into less skilled, low-paid work - or that the work itself has been undervalued?

Orthodox economists tend to accept skill definitions at face value. On those rare occasions when they do deign to address the problem of women's low wages, they say it is because women have less training than men. Women have broken employment patterns, they declare: because they know they will have to stop work when they have children, they don't bother to acquire skills and training. No wonder they end up in the worst-paid jobs.

If this were the only explanation, it would be bad enough (think of the resources needed to change this pattern: maternity and paternity leave, more nursery schools, better training opportunities). But the whole truth is even more daunting.

The truth is that what have come to be thought of as 'women's skills' have been systematically downgraded. This degradation is so pervasive and complete that it means that whatever work women do - whatever the amount of responsibility, training, skill it demands - their work will be seen as less skilled simply because it is done by women.

Cooking, cleaning? Well, of course this comes easily to women. Making clothes, assembling microscopic electronic circuits? Well, we all know about women's 'nimble fingers', not to mention their saintly tolerance of boring, monotonous work. Social work, nursing, speech therapy? Forget about the long years of training these careers involve - everyone knows that 'caring' comes naturally to women.

Often there is a direct link between the kind of skills that women automatically learn in the household and the skills they will need in their jobs. This means women tend to need less training than men simply because of the experience they bring with them: qualities ranging from manual dexterity to the ability to communicate and draw people out. The catch, of course, is that anything women learn in the home is ignored when it comes to deciding how much they will be paid, because it is not considered a 'real' skill.

But these days the patronizing slogan of 'different but equal' is becoming increasingly replaced by the campaigning demand for 'equal pay for work of equal value'. This allows women to challenge traditional definitions of skill for the first time. Instead of comparing their pay with that of men doing 'broadly similar' jobs, women are now starting to compare the content and value of their work with those of men in very different occupations.

In the US, for instance, legal secretaries have won the right to have their work compared with that of carpenters; clerical workers are considered comparable with truck drivers. And in one recently contested case in the UK, a cook successfully compared her work with that of painters, joiners and insulation engineers.

Cases like this expose the absurdity of existing discrimination on the so-called basis of skill. Once actual job descriptions are compared it becomes impossible to justify the extraordinary differentials between male and female wages. But a plausible case does not by itself guarantee higher wages. Julie Hayward - the cook mentioned earlier, who worked at Cammell Laird shipyards - won her case. But her employers simply refused to pay the extra $45 (£25) a week, arguing that she enjoyed certain extra benefits to compensate for her lower wages. And in one amazing example now being referred to the European Court of Human Rights, a woman lost her case because she had chosen to compare herself with a higher-paid man whose work was then deemed to be less skilled than hers!

Employers' reluctance to acknowledge (and reward) the value of their women workers is not really surprising. Because if they did, they would be faced with an enormous addition to their wage bills. One re-evaluation negotiated by a union in San Jose, California, extracted $1.4 million from the employers in pay adjustments and increases. And estimates in the UK suggest that successful, fully-implemented equal value judgements could put between 20 and 30 per cent onto the final tab each year.

Given the degree to which women's work is undervalued, restoring the balance will prove a massive task. And, since it cuts to the heart of existing pay differentials (and not only between men's and women's jobs, either!), it will face huge opposition. Male workers will not abandon readily the advantages they have derived from their higher pay and status; employers will be loth to lose their abundant source of cheap labour.

Anne Phillips is the author of Hidden Hands: Women and Economic Policies, in Pluto's Arguments for Socialism series, UK 1983.

Where the cleaners stopped cleaning until
people realized the value of their work.

[image, unknown] The country was taken by surprise. Nobody realized just how angry - or how well-organized - the women were. And within three days the employers had given in and agreed to the women's every demand. The strikers were the cleaners of Alicante's hospitals, airports and department stores.

It was not as though they hadn't tried to negotiate. The trouble was that half the time they didn't know who to negotiate with - because their individual contracts were simply bought and sold over their heads as the many subsidiaries of the giant multinational cleaning corporations changed hands. This meant that the other half of their time was spent renegotiating terms with a new set of administrators.

So in the end they simply downed tools and forced the employers to come to them. It didn't take long. The cleaner may be invisible while she's doing her work but when she stops doing it she becomes extremely visible indeed. All over Alicante the signs of the strike began accumulating. Waste-bins in public toilets overflowed with used paper towels and the floors became sticky with filth. Litter-bins disappeared under avalanches of coke cans and newspaper.

The public began to protest so the Government called in the army to help keep the mess at bay. The women responded by filling their shopping-bags with rubbish and surreptitiously scattering it around in the wake of the khaki-clad cleaners' brooms. Soon it was clear that the employers had a crisis on their hands. If the dispute was not resolved soon an outbreak of food-poisoning could bring the wrath of the whole country down upon them. The women could not have better demonstrated the true value of their work.

In the early hours of the fourth day, in a bar in a run-down part of the city, the employers signed the paper agreeing to the women's demands: for 14 per cent higher wages, job security, the right to the status of full-time workers even if they worked in two separate establishments, plus guaranteed maintenance of staffing levels, pay and conditions when contracts were exchanged and bartered.

Debbie Taylor

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New Internationalist issue 181 magazine cover This article is from the March 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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