Self-appointed equalities expert Nigel Farage claims that women who work in the City do not experience sex discrimination. They might be paid less than their male counterparts but this is merely because motherhood reduces their actual value (sorry, fellow mums). According to the UKIP leader-cum-gender analyst, “young, able women that are prepared to sacrifice the family life and stick with their career will do as well if not better than men.” There’s little evidence to support this (City pay disparities kick in long before a woman gets pregnant) but not to worry. It’s only a story. It’s the kind of thing we tell ourselves to make inequality feel okay.
Another thing we might tell ourselves is that such stories don’t even matter. Situated, as ever, in the land of the über-privileged, they have no relevance to the day-to-day experiences of most women and men. What’s being offered is a highly individualistic narrative, in which love, ambition and biological impulses compete for the soul of some self-absorbed high flyer (who probably wears shoulder pads and still thinks it’s 1986). Factors which might concern the rest of us, such as food, warmth and security, don’t even feature. What women want is there for the taking. If they are constricted, it is merely by the weight of choice and a petulant reluctance to compromise.
In the real world, of course, it’s different. Gender pay disparities persist but here we find multiple, intersecting reasons why women are considered to be worth less than men. Biology, or rather one’s reproductive role — which Farage chirpily admits that he “can’t change” — is merely one element that interacts with many others. The fact that she could become pregnant (or is perceived to have this potential) means the female employee can be depicted as less efficient and more disruptive, yet the intersection of ageism and sexism means there’s no let-up even once the menopause can be assumed to have occurred. The practical division of childcare and household labour is influenced by cultural prejudice and stereotyping, while class barriers, multiple discriminations and poverty wage levels mean that many women (not just mothers) are unable to find a job they can afford to do. It is messy, and this is without even factoring in the base-level gender prejudice that still insists women, irrespective of their reproductive lives, cannot perform certain roles as well as men. Yet this is the way of things. That we could do something to make life different – beyond a little half-hearted tinkering around the edges of employment law – seems to remain beyond imagining.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about the story Farage tells – one that’s been repeated time and again in an effort to convince women and girls never to complain – is the utterly dishonest division between present and past. There is a past in which women were held back by sex discrimination (which is false and had to be challenged), whereas today the only thing that makes women unequal is reproduction (which is real and has to be accepted). This is a nonsense. Women have always worked and always borne children. It is not biology but a failure of social structures to accommodate individuals whatever their reproductive lives (or our expectations thereof) that is oppressive. It is ridiculous to pretend that our inability to assimilate pregnancy, childcare and stereotypical “women’s work” into our current system of rewards is in no way symptomatic of a sexist, discriminatory worldview.
The impact of all this is real and powerful. Accepting the pay gap as an unavoidable “maternity gap” limits women’s access to physical safety and self-determination, and suggests there is no collective benefit from the unpaid work that carers do. The temptation may be to respond to the likes of Farage on his own terms, putting an emphasis on the idea that women can still have babies and remain perfectly functioning cogs in the capitalist machine, but this isn’t enough, particularly not for those who aren’t merely choosing between a City bonus and playing the angel of the hearth. It’s not all twee little stories about ambitions denied and family sacrifices made. Such tales might create an impression of privilege and self-indulgence, but this is not how most women experience economic disadvantage.
A true challenge to gender pay disparities – one which considers, not just some abstract idea of “sex discrimination”, but the interaction of this with culture, class and reproductive experiences – would be far more disruptive and revolutionary than the likes of Nigel Farage could ever anticipate. It would change the way in which we currently perceive worth and reward people based, not on what they contribute, but the environments and bodies they are born into. If we would rather ask people to “sacrifice” their families than see wealth distributed more equally, something has gone badly wrong. No one expects a politician to “change biology”, but if that is the only way in which his or her politics can make any moral sense, it’s worth asking just how distorted our discourse has become.