Happy International Women's Day.
Did you know it was IWD? Do you care? And should you?
In Britain, it's easy to think not. However, IWD is not a newfangled feminist thing; today marks the centenary of what began as a demand for improved working rights and female suffrage in early 20th-century America and Europe. So 100 years ago today, Western women had already begun to think about what they wanted, and what they needed to live and work. But what do contemporary working women want? Is it part-time hours, flexible working, better childcare provision, increased paternity leave? Not to have to work at all? A holiday from having to think about it?
Depends who you listen to — or on what day you ask her. It's clear though that while the previous Labour government afforded women as many family-friendly allowances as the economy could bear, "work-life balance" and "satisfaction" are yet to have happily set up home together. According to a 2009 study by Cristina Odone for the Centre for Policy Studies, only 12 per cent of the 4690 women surveyed wanted to work full time; and in a recent YouGov/Sunday Times poll, 53 per cent of participants believed that women are under undue pressure to skip back to work, post-pregnancy. Have-it-all feminism, it seems, has left them with a frying-pan to ironing-pile dilemma — Sisyphea knackerdom for those that work and breed, or scrub-wifely shame for the Vesta non-virgin rest. At the same time, and I say this as a flag-flying feminist, gender equality has been commandeered by feminist self-interest. Of course women still need their rights fighting for. But despite their commitment to ending gender-based discrimination, you won't hear a similar clarion call for shorter prison sentences for male criminals (women get less time for equivalent crimes), for more men in fashion, HR and professional administration work; for better male mental health provision (men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide), or for more fathers to be given joint custody of children following divorce or separation.
Gender pay gap figures are thrown out faster than a stray male from a ladies' changing room. But the gap is a false friend to feminist statistics. Economists such as the LSE's Catherine Hakim distinguish between horizontal occupational segregation (whereby the sexes choose "different but equivalent" careers — eg women housekeepers vs. male carpenters) and vertical occupational segregation (where women choose jobs of a lower pay and status than those of men within the same industries — eg female secretaries vs. male managers). But feminist campaign groups and right-on governments rarely do. Which explains why so many men and women fail to get their heads round the boggling statistics proclaiming that women earn less than men. Women do earn less, overall. But 14 per cent of the gap (according to the Fawcett Society) can be attributed to the break in employment women take to care for family. Not necessarily because they are paid less for doing an equivalent, or even the same job, as men. And it's this kind of unqualified clamour that only serves to undermine the real cases of discriminatory pay, which do exist, while causing everyone else to wonder whether female colleagues are automatically paid less than male.
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