I was born in 1975. I do not recall a time in my life, ever, during which sexism, racism or homophobia were not considered to be passé. Discrimination always happened yesterday. Then today becomes yesterday and suddenly we realise that today wasn’t too great, either. Apart from “today today”, 2012. Finally, at long last, we’re totally sorted. Prejudice doesn’t exist. It’s not as though thought there’s the remotest possibility that in twenty year’s time we’ll look back and say “actually, I don’t know why we all thought that was acceptable”.
At least, that’s the case if you’re Tim Worstall, who’s written a piece in Forbes to reassure us all that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist (phew!). The very idea that it could is “dismally silly”. Sure, there used to be a problem – “we do know very well that women did suffer direct discrimination in education and employment in the past” – but conditions for women today couldn’t be better. Sure, we still earn less on average than men and are considerably less likely to hold positions of power and authority, but that’s all to do with age cohorts, apparently:
There was very definitely discrimination against young women in education and employment in, say, the 1920s. There hasn’t been since, arguably, the time of those born in the 1980s.
Except, “arguably”, there has. I mean, I wasn’t quite born in the 1980s so maybe I just get the very tail end of womankind’s centuries of rubbish. Hey ho. But I’m really not all that convinced.
Worstall argues that we now see “young female executives being paid more than the men”. Thus pay equality is merely a waiting game (sorry, older ladies!). Meanwhile discrimination – real, live discrimination – no longer exists, or so Tim would say:
We have a motherhood pay gap, something that it might be sensible for us to try and deal with, perhaps not. Entirely up to you that one. But a simple gender pay gap doesn’t really exist. Once we adjust for all of the extra little factors, hours of work, years in labour force, educational qualifications and so on there’s not really any room left for us to find actual discrimination against women in wages.
Obviously as a mother, I am pleased to learn that solving the problem that is the “motherhood pay gap” is entirely up to me. I’d always assumed the persistent belief that childcare is women’s work, despite the fact that it excludes women from receiving financial rewards for their labour, wasn’t something I’d chosen personally. It’s a situation thrust upon mothers, who are damned regardless of whether or not they continue in paid employment – whether it’s through being considered a bad mother, or becoming an exploited part-timer, or being priced out of the employment market by nursery fees, or through doing the decent, motherly thing and earning sod all. But Worstall would like to suggest it’s all a choice (and perhaps thereby intimate that we mummies like to opt out. As a full-time worker and therefore not-proper mummy, I wouldn’t know. Ask me when I get the option of continuing to earn while still being considered a full-time parent).
Yet this isn’t all about motherhood. It’s about discrimination in a broader sense and the idiotically simplistic idea that just because no boss sits down and thinks “better a useless man over a useful woman”, women are not undervalued in the workplace. Just because discrimination doesn’t happen in ways that are easy to call out doesn’t mean it’s not taking place. We might have a right to equal pay but a lack of transparency over salaries leaves us with no idea of where we stand. Asking questions is considered unprofessional. Moreover, it’s seen as petty. Equal pay? Hey, at least you’ve got a job! Furthermore, older female employees are for some reason expected to just accept that they’ve drawn the generational short straw. A pay gap which affects only older employees isn’t a real pay gap. As far as Tim’s concerned, these women will die and then it’ll all be equal. So why worry about them in the meantime?
Of course, there are no genuine assurances that things will improve. Objective measures of discrimination are hard to come by directly but, as Cordelia Fine details so clearly in Delusions of Gender, there is plenty of research which suggests that employers can and will judge women more harshly than men. Qualifications seem less impressive on a CV with a female name at the top; positive qualities are seen as negative ones when exhibited by a female manager; even the required skills for a specific post can change dependent on whether a man or a woman is applying (in one study, the qualities considered most valuable for a post happened to be whatever a male candidate possessed, and the criteria were subconsciously changed according to whether a candidate was presented as male or female). Studies also show that when it comes to pay, women who ask for more are more likely than men to suffer negative consequences. And yet if any of this was happening to you, the chances are you wouldn’t complain. You wouldn’t even know it was going on. Outside of test conditions how can individual women even make the comparison?
All of this rather undermines Worstall’s argument that there is no such thing as discrimination. It’s neither helpful nor fair to blame ongoing inequalities on either motherhood “choices” or generational hangovers. One one level this might seem unimportant. After all, discrepancies between male and female top-level pay are piffling compared to those between top-level pay and the minimum wage. Nonetheless, if this is a subject that’s worth writing about at all, it shouldn’t be in order to dismiss the very idea of gender prejudice. For if there is a trickle-down effect going on here, it’s not to do with money, but with values. We are fed “reasoned” explanations of why women are worth less than men. But the truth is, we’re not.
Mr Worstall, you might live in the post-sexist world. The women around you don’t. You don’t have the right to ask them to wait, or to tell them they were born at the wrong time, or to say they have choices which don’t yet exist. Whether we were born in the 1950s or 2000s, each of us only gets one life. It’s not “dismally silly” to try to make things fairer in the here and now.