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

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.”

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war