Yesterday evening I suffered the misfortune of witnessing the latest Barclays Bank advertisement. It’s one of those wry, cynical ones which show the customer going through various life stages, from youthful optimism right through to middle-aged resignation as the realities of family life slowly asphyxiate all hopes and dreams. Everyone’s been there, haven’t they? And by “everyone”, I mean all middle-aged, middle-class men, for they are the ones who have Stages Of Life and Related Financial Concerns. As for the rest of us? Why, we’re mere plot devices. Middle-class women exist only to have intermittently swollen bellies which produce parasitical children. Working-class men? Only there to screw over long-suffering middle-class men when they need their car fixed or their drain unblocked. Working-class woman? Doesn’t exist, at least not in bank ad land (perhaps one day she’ll be permitted to pop in, Mrs Doyle-like, with a tea urn and a duster with which to metaphorically “clean up” your finances).
The Barclays advert takes me back thirty years, replicating a type of sexism I recognised as a child and which, in typically childlike fashion, I naively assumed wouldn’t exist by the time I grew up. I come from a middle-class “traditional” background – traditional insofar as my parents had been working class, but now had more money and a domestic set-up in which the woman not earning had become a source of pride. My mother had supported my dad while he’d completed his studies but hadn’t done any paid work since my brother and I were born. I saw how this played out. It was a sort-of joke, at least in our household. “Out spending my money again?” “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” “Men don’t do housework. Why have a dog and bark yourself?” It wasn’t really bullying – my parents had and still have a relationship which works well. But I could see the dynamics repeated in other, less supportive middle-class households. Poor male wage slave, bloodsucking female. It didn’t matter that the women did in fact work, not just caring for children and doing housework, but for charities, schools, hospitals … Anything as long as they didn’t receive any money for it and thereby damage the standing of their husband.
This much was clear to me from an early age: if you didn’t earn, you weren’t seen as a full adult. You weren’t respected in the same way and you didn’t have as many choices. You were at the mercy of a man who could leave you for someone younger (and many did). And yet, while your lack of income would be used against you in arguments, if you were a middle-class woman you weren’t supposed to earn, either. This is what made me a feminist to begin with (albeit a parody of the worst second-waver you can imagine).
This week hasn’t been a good one for middle-class women and the various clichés we’re told we represent. Not only do we get the Barclays advert, but we get Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg kindly advising us to “lean in” (which, from what I can work out, means “accept that life’s unfair if you’re female but work your arse off all the same, ideally in a highly lucrative field”). At the same time we are told (yet again) that putting our children in nursery while we go out to work /”lean in” is extremely damaging and that most men want us to stay at home. And just in case we don’t have children, there’s plenty of gloating about women who’ve been over-ambitious and “left it too late”. Hence, to summarise, if you’re not earning loads you’ve not tried hard enough, if you are earning loads you’re going to end up childless and regretful, and if you have managed to “juggle” both family and highly-paid work your children will be permanently harmed by your lack of attentiveness. Got that, middle-class ladies? You’re shit, you are. And not only that, once again everyone’s decided that equal pay is an issue purely for hyper-talented self-identified alpha females. And just as for all women work seems to be seen as some great indulgence bestowed upon us by men (“we don’t like you possibly going off and having kids – regardless of whether you’re fertile / even want them – but you know, we’ll let you empty the wastepaper baskets, for the sake of ‘equality’”), equality at the top end of the pay scale comes across as nothing more than an ego boost for the alphas. We’ve lost sight of why it really matters. It’s not about the vanities of the privileged (who, male or female, should all be earning less), it’s about the true worth of each and every one of us.
Equal pay matters for all of us: it’s not some vague principle of fairness. It’s not to do with ambition. It’s not to do with the “best” women being rewarded (because, let’s be honest, that’s not how pay works for men, either). It’s to do with the fact that at almost every level of society, a lack of money is used against women, in all sorts of ways that go far beyond the obvious ones (although they’re bad enough – we’re either trapped in cycles of dependency on men, regardless of how they treat us, or far more exposed to cuts in benefits and services). The fact is we are also resented for earning less than our partners and peers. Our value as human beings is perceived to be less, we have less say in what happens around us, less agency. As a group and as individuals we lack clout and the need to appeal to men – whether you’re Sheryl Sandberg wheedling her way round Mark Zuckerberg or a mother asking her ex for money for the kids’ school trip – weakens us. And I think the ongoing perception that we – human beings who work just as much, if not more, than men – somehow don’t pay our way feeds into a really basic level of misogyny. We dismissed as leeches, temptresses, creatures who take from men. We stand to one side in the Barclays advert, bloated belly set to drain the finances of our hapless partner. If men truly believed we were of equal value to them I think there are a huge number of things, superficially unrelated to finance, that would outrage them (violence, lack of political representation, lack of reproductive freedom). In everything, women operate with a different currency and the rate of exchange is rubbish.
I don’t think there is an easy solution to this. The government pays lip service to women earning “for the sake of the economy”, at the same time implying it’s all rather novel and exciting, not something most women have always had to do anyhow. The terms are not equal, yet whenever we complain, the same old excuses come up, the main one being that “it’s not a gender gap, it’s a maternity gap”. This isn’t even true – straightforward discrimination is rife – yet even if it were, why should that be acceptable as a long-term prospect for any mother? Proposals for valuing the work of stay-at-home mothers stall at transferable tax breaks, that is, putting more money into the take-home pay packets of the earning parent, usually male, and doing nothing for single mothers or mothers in relationships who still want some degree of autonomy. But how else can we value and reward unpaid caring work without creating an unequal level of dependency? In the end, I think the problem is bound up in the fact that the way we reward all work isn’t fair and is linked to status in a way that makes no sense. I don’t think we can close the gender pay gap until all pay is much more evenly distributed and far more stable support networks are in place for carers – and yet right now things are going in the opposite direction. Broader social injustice must remain a huge pressure point for feminism, even though at the moment it feels like we’re losing anyhow.
But I think things can get better. And in the meantime, I have three things to say: Sheryl Sandberg, I’m not going to “lean in”. Daily Mail, I’m not going to feel ashamed of sending my child to nursery so that I can play along with an unequal system of exchange which I didn’t mastermind. And Barclays, just fuck off. You know where you can stick your ISA.