Tomorrow’s Equal Pay Day is a test of whether the old political parties have been paying attention.
After weeks of sexual harassment allegations, it is the day to move the conversation forward in Westminster. From what kind of reporting systems are needed, to how we stop sexual harassment from happening at all. To move on from setting the House in order, to setting the UK in order.
That means tackling the pay gap – one of the main barriers to women’s equality and as such a key factor in sexual harassment and violence against women. Tomorrow is the day we mark it; the day the average UK woman effectively stops being paid for the rest of the year – and this year, the day that thousands of women will turn on their ‘Out of Office’ email in protest.
Conservatives and Labour alike have pledged to act on the pay gap but both in this and the harassment cases their leaders have so far failed to join the dots.
Our pay gap is another national scandal that is not well understood. In this, as in violence against women and girls, the overwhelming narrative is that women somehow choose this treatment. We have to combat this idea that inequality is a lifestyle choice. The facts are that our childcare is the most expensive in the world and takes away the choice about whether and how much women want to work. Where women do work – areas they can negotiate flexible working, school-friendly hours or reliable sickness and holiday cover as a result of their caring responsibilities – we value those sectors less, and pay correspondingly. We make cuts to those areas of social infrastructure via austerity measures that take no account of the disproportionate harm to women while investing in physical infrastructure that protects men’s jobs. We make women poor and keep them poorer.
When women make up lower-paid, part-time and unpaid roles and men dominate better-paid and more senior jobs, there is a power imbalance. And that is the context in which harassment thrives. (None of the men have so far been accused of harassing someone senior to them.) Because women are forced into positions of dependency. Economic empowerment is the key both to closing the pay gap and ending violence against women. That means understanding the impact that current policy has on women in particular and rethinking what investing in economic growth looks like, so that growth includes women.
The pay gap is a measure of the systematic disadvantaging of women caused by early gender stereotyping, occupational segregation and gender blind politics that drives a wedge between men and women. It happens because we fail every day to address this discrimination even as it sees women lose their jobs while on maternity leave, defined as ‘economically inactive’ while they bring up children and care for elderly relatives, and retire into poverty. The pay gap only measures the gap for women being paid for the work they do. The estimated economic value of the unpaid work women do is 77 billion pounds a year.
The leaders of the two biggest political parties have talked for weeks now about harassment without once mentioning any of this. Without mentioning the fact that services to support women have been slashed; that Universal Credit aimed at forcing people into work takes no account of the unaffordability of childcare; that businesses systematically exclude those with caring responsibilities; that all of these decisions are being made in a Parliament where men outnumber women by two to one and across companies where women do not sit in positions of authority.
So tomorrow we are turning on our Out Of Office to highlight the fact that women are effectively working for free for the rest of the year. Older women, BAME women and women in skilled trade jobs stopped being paid long before this day, and pregnancy and maternity discrimination is pushing thousands of women out of the office permanently.
The pay gap is not closing. Switch on your Out Of Office tomorrow to raise people’s awareness of it and to help us make sure that all women’s work is properly valued, and we can all be free from harassment.