‘Heading Households – Power, Domination, Subjugation and Survival’
‘What does a woman want money for?’ the Reverend Patrick Brontë asked when his daughter, Charlotte, told him she was going to be paid for a book she had written. The book was Jane Eyre.
Patrick’s stipend was not enough to maintain his children, and until his daughters began to earn money, first as governesses and then as novelists, the family lived in poverty.
But, what did Charlotte want money for?
Charlotte paid the doctor’s bills – her sisters, Anne and Emily died from tuberculosis. She paid for their home, the parsonage at Howarth, to be redecorated and improved. She paid off her brother’s debts. Her prosperity did not last long, for in 1855 Charlotte, now married, died, not in childbirth, but from being pregnant; her body was simply too frail to withstand a pregnancy. Did poverty during her own childhood contribute to her frailty?
By earning her own living, Charlotte Brontë took on the role of head of household, but it was not until 1993 that the assumption that the man was ‘head of household’ ceased to be automatic, and a definition of ‘chief income earner’ adopted. Charlotte broke the pattern of genteel poverty imposed on nineteenth century women of the middling sort, but only by posing as a male author. When the success of Charlotte’s novels brought her to London to meet her publisher, George Smith, of Smith, Elder and Co, was shocked, but he was also generous towards his writers: Charlotte had chosen well, and she continued to earn what a man would have earned.
So, more than a century and a half on from the publication of Jane Eyre under a male pseudonym, how are women faring? And what impact has equal pay legislation had on women’s ability to earn a living?
The equal pay legislation
The Equality Act 2010, which replaced the Equal Pay Act 1975, enables a woman to claim pay equal to that received by a man on the grounds that they are doing:
- Like work
- Work rated as equivalent under a job evaluation scheme
- Work of Equal Value
‘Pay’ includes wages, holidays, pension rights, company perks and some bonuses. Claims are pursued through the Employment Tribunal system.
The current gender pay gap
The median full-time gender pay gap for hourly earnings is 10.00 per cent [ONS April 2013], an increase on the previous year. For the tax year ended 5 April 2013 median gross annual earnings for male full-time employees were £29,300, women the figure £23,600.
Averages do not tell the full story: some women will experience no pay gap, others will experience much larger inequalities than the headline figures imply. And it’s important to recognise that a pay difference doesn’t necessarily signify pay discrimination. A pay gap can have many causes, only one of which could be pay discrimination.
Full-time gender pay gaps are wider in some occupations than in others. The gap in median hourly earnings is widest for skilled trades and for process, plant and machine operatives, both at 22 per cent. Among major industrial groups, the median full-time gender pay gap is widest for financial and insurance activities, 37 per cent, and in England, the widest gender pay gap is in the South East , reflecting the higher average earnings of men in those regions, particularly of men working in the financial services industry.
Full-time gender pay gaps widen for women aged 40-49 and 50-59, before narrowing for older. Conversely, the gap has largely disappeared for those in their twenties and thirties, with the earnings of women and men aged 22-29 being similar.
Research into the gender pay gap
We know from the large body of research into the gender pay gap, as well as from our own experience and observations as women, that the nature and pattern of women’s labour market participation remains distinct from that of men. Women’s choices about what kind of work to do, where to do it, and for how many hours a week, are still quite restricted. Women are over-represented in the ‘5 Cs’: caring, cashiering, cleaning, catering, and clerical. These roles tend to be poorly paid, with few opportunities for training and progression, and often do not make the most of women’s skills and abilities.
Men dominate full-time employment, women part-time, but while the proportion of men working part-time is steadily increasing, for men this reduction in hours tends to be for a finite period of time – while they are students, or after they have retired; for women it lasts for many years. Despite advances in ‘flexible working’ – intended to open up higher paid jobs to working on a reduced hours basis, there is still a real limit to high quality and well paid part time work.
The consequences of the gender pay gap
Almost all the research into the gender pay gap has looked at its causes, but I want to look at its consequences. The correlation between low pay and unequal pay is unclear – I believe deliberately so: policy makers quite simply don’t want to face up to the fact that poverty is a women’s issue; easier by far to blame the education system, or the way in which benefits are distributed, than to redress the imbalance of power that impoverishes women.
Low income in retirement
What we do know is that women are more likely to be low paid than men throughout their working lives. This often translates into lower income in retirement. 17 per cent of women pensioners live in households with a low income compared to 14 per cent of men [EHRC 2012]. The pensions’ gap is narrowing, but until the underlying cause – the gender pay gap – is tackled, the problem is not going to go away.
The consequences of unequal pay and/ or low pay are more than financial, especially when women are heads of household. Over the past fifteen years the proportion of mothers in couples who are breadwinners has risen from 18 to 31 per cent, while the proportion of mothers who are sole earners is up from 11 to 18 per cent. The consequences of unequal pay/low pay for women include:
- Residence in poor neighbourhoods. More female-headed households with children report both ‘pollution and grime and other environmental problems’ and ‘crime, violence and vandalism’ in the local areas than do other types of household [EHRC 2012].
- Poor housing. Households headed by women are more likely to live in overcrowded or substandard homes than those headed by men.
- Life transitions. Bereavement or divorce have a more significant and potentially negative impact on women’s financial position than on men’s [BHPS].
- Domestic violence. Divorced or separated women are more likely to experience domestic violence, but domestic violence is less likely to occur in households where male and female contributions to household income are roughly equal [Olsen & Walby, 2002].
Not enough has changed in the century and a half since Charlotte Bronte shocked her father and her publisher by taking on responsibility for her own material wellbeing. While the headline gender pay gap is 10 per cent, the figure for older women is 18 per cent. ‘Women’s rates’ were outlawed almost fifty years ago, but we all know that a part-time rate is a ‘woman’s rate’. ; Unequal pay all too often also means low pay, which in turn means poorer housing provision and less ability to self-provide for a pension. We’re still stuck in the male breadwinner mould. It’s not regulation that is needed, nor endless policy initiatives, but a seismic shift in attitudes towards women.
Sheila Wild (c) March/April 2014
Writer and equality consultant Sheila Wild was for many years the Director of Employment Policy at the Equal Opportunities Commission (the EOC), where she headed up a number of major projects on workplace issues affecting women. Through her work on equal pay cases, and on the 1997 and 2003 codes of practice on equal pay, she acquired a particular expertise on equal pay issues and subsequently led the development and dissemination of the EOC’s equal pay audit kit, which for over a decade has been the focal point for UK campaigns to close the gender pay gap. Sheila moved across to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007, where she continued to lead on equal pay issues. After leaving the Commission in 2011, Sheila set up www.equalpayportal.co.uk an information resource on equal pay. Sheila Wild is an award-winning poet and is currently reading, part-time, for a Masters in Publishing.
This is an edited version of a presentation at the WWAFE (Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom & Equality) seminar at the House of Lords on 6 March 2014 – ‘Heading Households – Power, Domination, Subjugation and Survival’.