“There’s this attitude that men know better. No matter what the field.” Photo: Getty
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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.

“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.”

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times