By Professor Mary Evans, London School of Economics
In 2017 it is sometimes assumed that many of the forms of inequality between women and men that once existed have now disappeared. Indeed, anyone looking back fifty years could point to instances such as the new equalities in civic status and legal rights between the sexes and the greater numbers of women in higher education to support that case. However, another way of looking at this, and a way which has been articulated by organisations such as the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Budget Group is that there remain too many contexts where inequalities of gender have not disappeared. Four of these are particularly significant : inequalities in earnings, access to and presence in public forms of power, responsibilities for care and forms of the representation of women. In terms of all these issues race and class produce greater and lesser forms of inequality.
So the question is not one about the existence of gender inequality but one of how it persists. In this it is perhaps useful to look at a number of ways in which certain social and political changes, not specifically related to gender have ensured the continuity of the ways in which its related inequalities are reproduced. The first I would mention here is that of the ‘push to work’, or as it more accurately should be described the ‘push to paid work’. That added word is centrally important because the impact of both the higher costs of living and government policies have produced a situation when every adult is expected to be in paid work, regardless of their particular circumstances. This is not an argument about keeping women or anyone else out of paid work.But it is an argument about the implicit refusal of recognising the responsibilities of care, which generally, although not exclusively, impact upon women.
The second point to make here is that of the aspirational model of the citizen as someone not just in full time work but someone who is highly qualified, available for work 24/7 and willing to be geographically mobile. Its a model of what Kathleen Lynch has memorably described as the ‘care-less’ subject . This model clearly impacts in negative ways on anybody with commitments to care ; it impacts on all workers whose work is socially necessary but not necessarily highly credentialised and of course within that group of people there are large numbers of people who are women. Countless studies have pointed out the different impact in terms of employment of the birth of children for men and women; although this is sometimes seen too exclusively in the middle class concerns of career progression it is an issue for women across differences of race and class.
Finally, to the subject of the exploitation of the bodies of women. This is not just about paid work but about the ways in which the individual bodies of women are subjected to demands, expectations and abuse. Body size, the making of all areas of the body ‘a problem’, concerns about dress and diet are all areas where millions of pounds are made out of anxiety and concern. Again, evidence supports this assertion, but what needs to be named is the social construction of shame and worry about the body and its possible failings.
We cannot, in 2017, assume gender equality; nor can we ignore the aspirational coercion which all too often assumes the moral centrality of paid work and refuses what Miriam Glucksmann has so powerfully described as the ’total social organisation of labour’. Without recognition of this idea we all too often fuse two problematic narratives : one of the assumption of the ‘emancipation’ of women and the other of the unfettered, autonomous subject.
The video of Professor Evans talk at the BSA/British Library 7th Equality Lecture will be available on the BSA website soon.