Is Equal Pay Possible?


You thought that equal pay had been sorted years ago? Well, according to the United Nations, women and girls do two thirds of the world’s work for 5% of the income. Of the world’s 550 million working poor, those unable to lift themselves and their families above the $1 per day threshold, 330 million, or 60%, are women.

‘But surely things cannot be this bad in the prosperous West?’ Well, one consistent fact across every EU country is that women earn less than men. Unveiling an action plan, on July 19th, to deal with this pay gap Commissioner Vladimir Spidla revealed that on average women earn 15% less than men in Europe.

So let’s deal with the barroom sexist arguments first: “But shure obviously - hic -men are clearly superior to women and deserve to earn more” he splutters into his pint of Carlsberg. Ok, barroom sexist, so wages should be based on superior strengths and abilities, eh? Let’s go with that plus the fact that most modern work is based on skill and education. But Commissioner Spidla also revealed that “Girls outperform boys at school and more women enter the labour market with a university degree than men”.

So, by barroom philosophers Carlsberg logic (probably the best logic in the world) surely women should be earning more than men? Closer reading of EU reports hints at the real reasons for this persistent pay gap. A detailed report from last year, Gender Pay Gap Origins and Policy Responses, quickly provides us with some clues.

It tells us that the extent of the pay gap is “significantly smaller in the public sector”, that it hardly exists with young women coming into the workforce but “tends to widen with age” and that the authors are worried about a trend towards individually negotiated contracts “potentially increasing the gender pay gap”.

The reasons for this are obvious; public sector workers are usually unionised and their employer, the state, has to be seen to implement equal pay & opportunities legislation. Younger women coming into the workforce are in a position to organise and fight but as they have children or grow older, the system, in effect, can ‘pick them off’. It is the ruthless logic of capitalism that it can exploit ‘weaknesses’ such as the ability to give birth. As well as doing the lion’s share of unpaid work at home, women - mostly due to childcare responsibilities – are more likely to be employed in part-time work where hours are more flexible but pay is less and job security is more precarious. These factors, combined with lower levels of union membership in the service industries and the increasing trend for individually negotiated contracts, have resulted in the pay gap either remaining constant or even increasing.

As far as individual contracts are concerned, this is the logic of capitalism – exploit any ‘weakness’ to save shillings. And sometimes throw in some good old-fashioned common or garden sexism just to add insult to injury.

I think it is actually fair to say that capitalism (even if it wanted to, and some EU officials are genuinely trying!) could never fully eliminate this gender pay gap. As long as there is a weakness to be exploited (in this case time off work for the bearing and raising of children) the system will hone in on it remorselessly.

So anarchists encourage women to organise, fight for decent state-funded childcare and battle sexism at every turn. The fight for equality is not over. Improved pay and opportunities at work may not be our ultimate goal but it is part of the struggle to make things better in the here and now. However, we don’t intend to stop until we achieve for the far fairer goal of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” and the abolition of the wages system itself.

From Workers Solidarity 99, September October 2007

Download the PDF file