Women are overworked, underpaid and undervalued… if we had a union, we’d definitely be taking to the streets to protest.
The high street is deserted, the shops shuttered, museums are locked up and a note on the library door declares it is closed until further notice. A group of men with children cluster hopefully at the primary school gates, but they’re padlocked, with a banner attached to the railings airily announcing “Be back soon!”
The children whimper, until they’re scooped up by their fathers and taken home, stopping at the only place left to buy food: the local garage. Some are struggling to make their debit cards work at the till as their bank balance is inexplicably depleted. Arriving home, businessmen call into the office to check their diaries and cancel their appointments, but it goes straight to voicemail. “All personal assistants are out of the office until the next century or the dawn of equal rights,” intones the answerphone message, “whichever comes first.”
In the hospitals, they’ve cancelled all the operations that can wait, but are still in crisis mode; so too in care homes, where small groups of male volunteers tend to residents. It’s proving tricky to find a police officer to ask what’s going on as one in four isn’t on the beat today. On TV, normal programming has been replaced by male news reporters filing panicked stories about the collapsing economy, and venturing into homes where harried men speak about the struggle to manage any work while looking after the kids (in the background,toddlers scribble on walls with crayons). The reports also show women gathering in city centres, 30 million out on the streets, shouting, singing, brandishing signs and banners, all with one simple message: WOMEN ON STRIKE. Because, put simply, they have all had enough.
Women make up 49.4% of the 24.2 million employees in Britain, and one in five of us are the household’s main breadwinner. Yet the full-time gender pay gap between us and men is 14.9% (rising to up to 55% in the finance sector) and in the last quarter, eight out of 10 people who lost their jobs were female. We still overwhelmingly bear the brunt of childcare and housework, even when we work full-time. We’re still so unfairly and unequally treated that if women had a union, surely our leaders would be urging us to take industrial action? And although it might seem an unlikely (not to mention mildly apocalyptic) scene, it wouldn’t be the first time a women’s strike has been called.
In 1970, the feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan proposed US women should strike for a day, and on 26 August of that year, 20,000 women converged on Fifth Avenue in New York, calling for equal pay and free childcare. “Don’t iron while the strike is hot” declared their banners. The strike was an enormous success – the biggest women’s demonstration in the US since the suffrage movement. A protest that put feminism on the map. “It was much more anarchic than Betty Friedan ever planned, believe me!” says poet and campaigner, Robin Morgan, who spoke at the event. “I remember saying to her, ‘Well, Betty, when you go for a mass action, you just can’t control it.’”
“The full-time gender pay gap is 14.9% and in the last quarter, eight out of 10 people who lost their jobs were female”
The Gender Gap
As researcher and writer Julia Long points out, women actually have a history of courageous, dramatic demonstrations. Just two years before Friedan’s march, 187 women walked out of their jobs sewing car-seat covers at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, in protest at being paid less than their male colleagues. The three-week strike led to a pay rise, and also to the Equal Pay Act, introduced in 1970. Along with the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, this was supposed to usher in an age of equal rights where women’s voices would ring out at the top of politics and business and men would enjoy a healthier, happier balance of work and family life (and a much more intimate relationship with the household cleaning cupboard).
While progress has been frustratingly slow, it’s also thought to have been constant – a steady snail trail towards equality. So it’s surprising to speak to those who believe women’s progress hasn’t simply stalled, but might actually be rolling back a generation – women rewinding out of the office, out of our business suits, away from our own money and ambitions, back to an age where we greet men at the door each evening with a kiss, a tumbler of whisky and a valiant little smile. Anna Bird of the Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading campaign for equality between men and women, says we’re at a tipping point, “and if we don’t take action now, the impact will be felt for years.”
So is it time for UK women to stage a strike, walk out of offices and homes, leave men to juggle childcare and the work place, shopping and the school run, for even a week? Should we follow the lead of Iceland’s women, who staged a major strike in 1975, involving 90% of the female population – and who now live in the country regularly ranked the best in the world for women?
The essential question is this: how serious is the current threat to our rights? The economic climate is disastrous for everyone, of course, but there are some particularly worrying signs for women. The number of women out of work is growing at a much faster rate than men, with 32,000 women becoming unemployed, compared with 16,000 men in the last quarter of 2011. Women’s unemployment hasn’t been this high since 1987, when neon cycling shorts were considered an acceptable fashion statement. “Over time,” says Bird, “it’s going to become less and less common to see women working, particularly mothers.”
One of the obvious reasons is heavy cuts to the public sector; women make up two thirds of this particular workforce, as nurses, social workers and teachers. And these job losses will lead to a much bigger average gap between male and female pay, as in the public sector it currently stands at 13.2%, but rises to 20.4% in the private sector. The gap is especially significant because when childcare becomes unaffordable it’s more likely to be the partner with lower pay who gives up their job to look after the kids. And childcare is biting like never before. Last year, a study found the average cost of full-time childcare is £385 a month, rising to £729 for a child under two. These costs are making it difficult for women to stay in their jobs. Gail Carey*, 30, was working as a fashion journalist in London when she had her son Henry a year ago, says she knew she’d “never be able to afford to go back full-time, because with childcare costs, it wouldn’t have been realistic”.
In Hertfordshire, where she lives, a nursery place can cost as much as £65 a day. “So you’re looking at £1,300 a month, just for childcare. Who could ever afford that, with their commuting costs plus everything else too?” Instead, she now works as a blogger, looking after Henry during the day, and working in the evenings and weekends, relying on her partner and family for help. She considers herself really fortunate to have this option, but worries that she doesn’t have a pension, or any of the benefits that she had in full-time employment, such as sick pay, or holiday cover.
There are also fears that more women than ever are being pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination. A study by the Equal Opportunities Commission before the recession showed 30,000 women a year were losing their jobs as a result of being pregnant, and the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace has reported an alarming rise in the number of women contacting them. And the discrimination can be overt or subtle. When Marie Collins*, 33, returned to work in HR after having her first child her career seemed to be in reverse. Before her pregnancy, she had been promised experience which could lead to a promotion, but was instead stuck doing the sort of work she’d mastered years before. It was as if she’d been demoted, and she eventually felt there was no choice but to leave. She now looks after her two children Jess full-time, but needs to return to work, and is worried about her prospects.
It seems there is every reason to protest, but what would happen if women ditched the workplace, the home, and hit the streets? Could the country continue to function? Probably not. The employment figures for men and women from the Office for National Statistics show the level of chaos this would cause. At the least worrying level, there would be bosses up and down the country having to make their own coffee, type their own memos and work out how to replace the toner in the printer as women make up 99% of the total number of personal assistants.
For anyone unfortunate enough to be having a baby, an operation, or a nervous breakdown that day, the situation would be dire – 97% of midwives, 88% of nurses and 82% of therapists are women. And any men imagining they could simply drop their kids off at school and go to work would almost certainly be disappointed. Nurseries and primary schools would have to close, as a result of 93% of all childcare workers, and 85% of primary school teachers being women. Universities could continue to function, as only 20% professors in the UK are female, but their lecture halls would be empty, as female students now outnumber males at British universities.
“A study before the recession showed 30,000 women a year were losing their jobs as a result of being pregnant”
Although other sectors may not grind to such an immediate halt, they would still be hit – 30% of all businesses are female owned. The legal profession and law enforcement would also be affected – 29% of constables in England and Wales are female and roughly the same figure are prison officers, nearly 23% of judges are women, as are 60% of trainees entering law firms. There would be a devastating effect on retail, not just in terms of the workforce, but sales, since women are responsible for an estimated 80% of household buying decisions and one in five women now earns more than their partner (and 25% earn the same). And there would be fewer people to keep tabs on cash flow – nearly half of the accountancy trainee intake in the UK is now female.
Many men would have to stay off work, looking after children, and the house would most likely be a mess by the time women arrived back. Last year, an international study by Oxford University found household tasks still tend to be divided by gender, with ‘non-routine’ jobs including DIY and car upkeep seen as a masculine preserve, while cleaning, cooking and caring were considered feminine. And if men decided to abandon the empty kitchen to eat out, they may not find anywhere open – 56% of the workforce in hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism sector are women.
So would women ever agree to a strike? Finn Mackay, one of the organisers of the annual Reclaim the Night protests, in which thousands of women march through central London, suspects not. The problem, she says, “is that the sort of jobs women tend to do, paid and unpaid, are very difficult to strike from. You can’t just leave your baby at home all day by itself, and you can’t leave your elderly parent or relative either.”
Most women’s strikes have been based on compromise. The 1970 US strike was actually timed at the end of the working day, so women could protest without risking their jobs, and the name of the Icelandic strike was softened to women’s ‘day off’. In both cases many women marched with their children. These were hugely visible, successful demonstrations, and perhaps it’s time for us to follow their lead – not by striking, but by joining other women in some form of positive protest. Maybe it is time to stop starting those businesses, put down that iron, hand over your baby, pick up those banners, and take to the streets.
Kira Cochrane is editor of Women Of The Revolution: Forty Years Of Feminism (£9.99, Guardian Books)
Picture credit: Rex Features
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