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Why do I earn less as a woman than I did as a man?

Rebekah Cameron is a 46-year-old trans woman working in one of the most male-dominated environments known to woman – construction. Since transitioning, she has found it necessary to price her work lower than before.

Builders at work on a new hotel. Photo: Getty
“There’s this attitude that men know better. No matter what the field.” Photo: Getty

“Yes, it’s Cameron. Like the idiot in charge of the country.” Rebekah Cameron is sheltering from the rain in her car to make time for us. She’s on a job. In fact, she’s always on a job. This woman is in high demand.

Rebekah is a 46-year-old trans woman working in one of the most male-dominated environments known to woman – construction. Raised in south London, Rebekah became aware that she was the wrong gender at age four. Her stepfather, a naval man, sent her to the London Nautical School from where she was destined for Dartmouth. But the bullying was so bad that she left at 16 and worked a variety of odd jobs until she found a talent for construction and achieved her City and Guilds qualification.

At 35 Rebekah was outed by a girlfriend who had guessed her long-witheld secret and was initially supportive, but within 24 hours had told everyone in Rebekah's social, professional and family circles, without her consent. While her family surprised her with acceptance, it was her friends and colleagues who abandoned her and made her work life so unpleasant that she was forced to quit. “There was this animosity. People would walk off site or just glare at me. At least if they yell you know where you stand. I had an apprentice and I said to him, ‘all my tools are yours, do with them as you will’ and I just walked off.”

While undergoing the compulsory psychiatric treatment that still accompanies gender reassignment surgery Rebekah found herself unable to work. “I ended up on the dole for a year. I just didn’t know what to do with myself.” Her psychiatrist finally recommended her for surgery and Rebekah emerged from treatment to the happy life she’d hoped for.

She began working in construction again via MyBuilder.com, which purposefully makes no reference to the gender of its users unless they choose to, and where women in the trade are beginning to flourish. However, along with all the advantages that having her gender corrected has brought, Rebekah – who describes herself as “a bit of a feminist” – is also experiencing some of the disadvantages of being a woman. “The worst thing is not being taken seriously. I quite often work with my brother-in-law. He’s my labourer and I’ll have people discussing the job with him as if I don’t know what I’m talking about, so I have to take charge of the conversation all the time. It’s assumed that the role is the other way around: He’s the builder and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

And the proof is in the proverbial pudding when it comes to compensation for labour. “I certainly earned more [as a man]. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a woman or a trans woman that I get paid less. I give prices to people and they look at me as if to say, ‘really, you’re charging that much?’ Like they’re expecting me to do it for nothing because of who and what I am, when I know I’ve priced a lot lower than other guys.”

Women’s apologetic habit of under-valuing themselves is well documented, but why, in 2013, with an Equal Pay Act in existence (if not always enforced), do we feel that we are not worth that extra 15 per cent? “I price lower because I want to encourage people to use me because I’m good and I’m cheap and not be discouraged because I’m female or transgendered.” This is one of the keenest changes Rebekah has felt since transitioning. “I didn’t feel the need to price lower before – I was a lot more bolshie then.”

Rebekah, who teaches kick-boxing as self-defence to women, explains how she’s found herself frequently noticing some of the ever-present challenges that women face: “There’s this attitude that men know better. No matter what the field. When I’m talking to married clients and the guy's there they just always assume that they know better even when they know nothing about DIY.”

The fearful assumption women are making can only be that given a choice between a man and a woman, or a man and a trans woman, priced equally, the client will chose the man, and in practice there’s little the Equal Pay Act can do about it. But pitching it as a female assumption that we compensate for in advance is firmly shouldering women with the responsibility for their own downfall and leaves prejudice utterly deniable. The returning question that Rebekah’s story throws into sharp focus, and which still urgently needs answering is this: how can we legitimately test for gender prejudice within the workplace?

This duel perspective on gender equality is valuable because it highlights the work we still have to do before we can claim equality within our society. But for Rebekah the hard part is done, her contribution now is to share her unique story, and then get back to the life she’s built and can finally enjoy. “I’d rather have less pay. It shouldn’t be like that, but I’m just happy to be working.”