Lay down your placards, ladies: the fight for equality is over and we can all go back to the kitchen. The Centre for Policy Studies has just released a “study” entitled “Feminist myths and magic medicine” that claims that there is no evidence that men are paid more than women, that where there is evidence of sex discrimination, that evidence doesn’t matter, and that inequality is okay because some women actually choose it. Predictably, the Daily Mail has gone mental, expansively declaring the joyful news that “gender equality is a myth”.
The report’s author, Dr Catherine Hakim, has spent several years positioning herself as the only academic who can save this sick society from the scourge of feminism, one terrifyingly painted-on eyebrow permanently cocked at what she calls the “feminist myths” of equality legislation and “family-friendly” employment policies, presenting her table-rattling propaganda for right-wing think tanks as objective academic research. Hakim, who may or may not have actually met another woman, is best known as the face of “preference theory”, the wildly original notion that differences in work outcomes between men and women in the developed world are not the result of enormous, straining patriarchal guns held to the head of every single female in the job market, but because women and girls make “substantively different career choices” from men, opting for part-time work and shorter hours that better enable them to juggle paid work with the pressures of childrearing that still fall largely upon the shoulders of women. It is a sad indictment of the state of modern gender relations that this is seen, by Hakim and her many breathless devotees in the right-wing press, as some sort of staggering insight rather than weary confirmation of the status quo.
“Unfortunately, feminist ideology continues to dominate thinking about women’s roles in employment in the family,” writes Hakim, in a section of this entirely unbiased report entitled “Twelve Feminist Myths”, before coming to the conclusion that, because many women actually choose to work longer, more gruelling hours for less pay in order to raise families alone, “Equal opportunities policies have succeeded,” and all outstanding quota systems and equal pay. She also opines that the pay differential is entirely women’s fault, and that in fact many women and girls just want to marry rich men who will take care of them, and that that choice — being a free and laudable consumer choice — should also be applauded.
There is, however, a substantial difference between choice and empowerment. Choice is not the same thing as control, and not everyone who has a choice has freedom. Some choices are incredibly difficult, like the choice, faced by nearly all women in the developed world, between giving children the time they need, giving paid employment the time it needs, or — in most cases — frantically juggling the two while attempting to retain some some semblance of independent selfhood and sociability. Some choices are distressing, like the choice between professional and personal fulfilment that still mars the lives of many women in a way that it simply never has for men. Presenting these painful decisions as benign lifestyle choices is not just tarting up a hideous social stalemate in the language of consumer indulgence: it’s actively cruel.
In one key respect, of course, Hakim is right. Equality legislation can only go so far if it does not challenge the frameworks of a profoundly unequal system and there is only so far that one can crowbar women into a labour scheme that already exploits men before something starts to strain to snapping point. On the question of Hakim’s loathed “family-friendly” policies, for instance, one can mandate all the maternity leave one likes, but as long as the labour of childcare is still undervalued, underpaid and done largely by women who are expected to be grateful for any concessions made to their “lifestyle choices” by benevolent bosses, “outcomes”, in the language of Hakim’s report, will continue to be skewed in favour of men, and women will continue to face unpleasant choices that do real harm to their lives and ambitions. Equal pay for equal work is not, whatever soft liberal faux-feminists claim, the one goal of the women’s equality movement — more important to the substance of women’s lives is what Judith Butler called “the right to equal work itself”.
These observations on the limitations of equality legislation might seem to echo Hakim’s, but the difference is that I am a revolutionary feminist and Catherine Hakim is a recalcitrant hack academic with a personal vendetta against women who do not know their place and who would not know real social justice if it whacked her over the head with a huge glass ceiling. Her conclusions, lavishly lapped up by the Mail and the Telegraph, are that because legislative reshuffling has not solved equality, we can and should entirely abandon the notion of equality in the home and the workplace. Others, myself included, would rather take this as a signal to tear this unequal labour system into tiny bits and replace it with something that treats human beings as creatures with agency, dignity and pride.
The real problem with gender quotas in executive pay and employment is not that they are unnecessary, but that they have been co-opted by the right to convince the public that something is actually being done about sex inequality. It is breathtaking hypocrisy for Theresa May to promise to put more women on the boardrooms of big companies at the same time as helping to engineer public-sector and welfare cuts that will force single mothers to rely on their partners for financial support and abandon millions of women to poverty and unemployment. One cannot ape the postures of liberal feminism while rolling women’s rights back two decades and expect to be taken seriously as Equalities Minister by anyone with a pulse — not even in a government that considers the boardroom its core constituency.
It’s time we all stopped obsessing over the glass ceiling, not because it doesn’t matter, but because there are tens of millions of women huddled in the basement, shut away from power and public concern. Focusing our attention on the glass ceiling distracts us from the fact that the basement is rapidly flooding, and the women who have to live there want more than “choice” — they want real control over their lives.