Equal Pay article by Selma James for What Women Want report


Co-ordinator of the Global Women’s Strike and author of Sex, Race & Class – The Perspective of Winning

“[I want] wages for housework. Equal pay. Safety from violence and bullying.”

Equal pay was a defining theme in the responses to the What Women Want 2.0 survey, showing that, despite commitments from companies and government, little progress has been made.

But change is coming. Women are making headlines by confronting employers who take advantage, sexually and with gross pay differentials! Even women who rose from the ranks are speaking out, acknowledging that they are not immune from sexist discrimination; they are making a way for the rest of us to be heard – finally.

Pay is social power; it determines how we live, with whom and on what terms. I once worked in a tobacco warehouse

when women on the assembly line were about to get equal pay with men who shifted stock. In our excitement, one woman proclaimed: “From now on I’m paying half the mortgage, and that’ll change everything between us!”

Of course, women want jobs we enjoy, but most of us go out to work because we have to.

Wages measure the value of our time – which happens to be our life. When our wages are lower than men’s, we are disrespected and undermined. In the UK, the pay gap hovers around 19.2%.

Inequality of income is inseparable from the unpaid caring work most women do at home, especially if we are mothers. In 2006, Baroness Alison Wolf showed how different sectors of women are affected by this. She compared women’s incomes with the incomes of their male partners over a lifetime. A woman graduate born in 1970 with two children can expect lifetime earnings that are 88% of her male partner; 57% for women with middle level qualifications; and 34% for women without formal qualifications.

These income gaps reflect part-time work and career breaks for the 80% of UK women who are mothers. It’s like an employment tax on motherhood, felt most heavily by women who have least. But even non-mothers are expected to put up with less. Employers know what they can get away with in terms of discrimination,  not only on grounds of gender but also of race, age, disability and immigration status.

A century ago, suffragette MP Eleanor Rathbone was outraged that mothers who made society were denied “any share in its wealth”.  She spent her life campaigning for Family Allowance, introduced in 1946, the first act of the welfare state. She wanted this income to give mothers a level playing field to negotiate equal pay. And in 1968, the strike of the Ford Dagenham women established “comparable worth” – equal pay for work of equal value – and won us the 1970 Equal Pay Act. But jobs like caring, cooking, cleaning remained “women’s work” – undervalued and underpaid. Then the austerity cuts, 86% of which fell on women, created an employers’ market and women’s power to refuse even barbaric zero-hours contracts almost evaporated.

Now the struggle has resumed, everywhere, and it increasingly focuses on caring. In Ireland, an employment tribunal ruled that “caring responsibilities” had been used to discriminate against women academics. In Germany, thousands of metal workers downed tools for a 28-hour working week if they needed to care for children or ageing parents. “We want employers to recognise that traditional gender roles in modern families are changing, and we want workers to have the chance to do work that is important to society,” said a union spokesperson.

Paid time to care is on the agenda. Just when new technology threatens to massively cut jobs, the status of caring is rising. We might reconsider Virginia Woolf’s call for “a living wage for mothers”, updated to include all carers and all genders. What an opportunity!


Global Women’s Strike