Women’s Pay: Mind the Gap

Submitted by Janine on Fri, 03/17/2006 - 13:44

The hot topic of TUC Women's Conference was the gender pay gap – the fact that, three decades on from legislation supposedly guaranteeing ‘equal pay for work of equal value’, women still earn significantly less than men. Just a few days previously, the government’s ‘Women And Work Commission’ had published its report, containing a long list of recommendations, nearly all of them little fiddles with the system, and as a whole, letting employers right off the hook.

Proposing an emergency resolution on the subject, Michelle Emerson from the CWU castigated the Commission’s report for “placing too much emphasis on blaming women for not applying for well-paid jobs” and “pandering to the whingeing of employers about how difficult things are for them”. Hear hear. I actually heard a CBI representative on the radio saying that the gender pay gap was a bad thing but it was not the fault of employers. Who the hell else is paying women less than men?!?

The T&G’s Diana Holland reported that CBI big cheese Digby Jones had stated in public that “the gender pay gap should be zero” and wondered how that squared with the CBI vetoing every proposal at the Women and Work Commission that would have made a serious difference.

All in all, the Women and Work Commission is a classic case of the government wanting to look like it is doing something about an issue, but in practice making sure that it does very little.

I blogged from TUC Congress last year about this subject, with some suggestions that would significantly reduce the gap. I also looked a bit deeper at the issue in the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet, Comrades and Sisters.

One big problem with the Commission’s approach is that it sees a solution in a more even balance of men and women in high-paid and low-paid jobs – more girls going into skilled engineering work, more boys into hairdressing. I’m all in favour of getting rid of gender stereotyping, but I don’t see that the solution to women’s low pay is to have more low-paid men. We should be scrapping low pay rather than redistributing it.

‘Equal pay for work of equal value’ is a principle for equality in exploitation. Yes, it is better than unequal pay. But it leaves us with a continuing gender pay gap because the work that women tend to do is valued less than the work that men tend to do. Its fundamental flaw is that workers should be paid according to the value of what we produce – a notion that the trade union movement too readily buys into.

Personally, I agree with Marx: From each according to ability, to each according to need.