Women of the World Unite

With the recent prominence of ‘gender issues’ in the news, I have been reflecting on the voice feminism gives to women (to quote my guest blogger) on the ‘margins of survival’. My recent post referenced Alison Wolf’s assertion that much of middle class society is still propped up by a ‘servant class’; cleaners, nannies, women who iron our clothes, who enable the middle classes to participate in senior knowledge economy roles. This week’s guest blogger is Caroline Raine, a UNISON organiser, who supports workers, many of whom are women, who undertake insecure and poorly paid roles in the public sector to care for our parents, our children, our loved ones.  We need to give these women voice.

Since 2010 we have all been living in the downward spiral of austerity. Few of us can still believe it’s for our own good as essential services are cut, pay stagnates and job security becomes a thing of the past. Meanwhile the government continues to dig its heels in, using austerity as a political weapon not a financial necessity. Indeed, while an injection of public spending would kickstart growth and prosperity, continued public spending cuts keep the economy struggling. While no-one escapes the stagnation there is no doubt that it is women who are hardest hit. A recent analysis of tax and benefit changes by the House of Commons Library concludes that 86% of the burden of  austerity has fallen on women.

It’s not difficult to work out why women are hardest hit. We are the majority of public sector workers. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies about two thirds of the public sector workforce are women and the highest proportion of women are in the health and education sectors, i.e. the lowest paid sectors. Since the public sector has now seen cuts to its lowest level since the introduction of the welfare state it is these women who bear the brunt. According to the Joseph Rowntree Trust, English local authorities cut spending by 27% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16  Public services are labour intensive so most of these cuts have been in the form of jobs.

Not only are we being hit as public sector workers but also as service users.  Women are the greatest users of health and social care services (not least because we still tend to be the primary carers in families) so we face a double whammy of cuts to jobs and services.

It is not just statistics that tell the story. In my work as a public sector trade union organiser I see the impact day to day. While none of us are immune to the impact of stagnant pay, rising housing costs, cuts to services, etc., it is the lower paid women in insecure jobs who are worst hit. These are the very women who those of us in better paid and more secure employment depend on to be able to maintain our own earnings – the carers, cleaners, etc. And the women who are paid to work as carers and cleaners often go home to an existence of unpaid caring and cleaning.

I was recently involved in a reorganisation of local authority home care workers. Home carers do a vital job of enabling elderly and disabled people to remain in their own homes, thus improving their quality of life and saving public funds. Home carers are almost all women, they are poorly paid, they work unsocial shifts in often unpleasant and isolated conditions and have often chosen the work because the shifts fit around childcare. Some of the women I represented had young children and relied on partners who worked by day to provide childcare at night so that they could work. Even more common in the group was older women who cared for grandchildren. They did this because their daughters (it is always the women!) needed to work but could not afford the high costs of childcare so were dependant on their mothers.

Many of these women were living at the margins of survival, i.e. just earning enough to pay for essentials. So when the employer came along and said they had to make cuts in hours, for these women it meant financial survival was at risk.  But the cuts also meant the introduction of flexibility and you can’t be flexible when you need to be free to care for others at fixed times. Sadly the situation facing these women is all too common and often they are forced out of the public sector altogether as councils find contractors to provide services on the cheap. Despite limited legal protections for workers transferring to a new employer, it is always just a question of time before reason is found to harmonise pay and conditions, forcing everyone down to the lowest terms on offer by the new employer. Private sector employers are less likely to recognise unions and so it becomes more difficult to ensure decent pay and conditions in the long term.

This paints a grim picture. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe the tide is starting to turn as we have seen private contractors like Carillion go to the wall while Councils verge on bankruptcy and an inability to meet their legal obligations. The current situation is just not sustainable. But if we don’t shout about it, change will be too slow and damage too long term to undo, even in the term of a Parliament with the will to change things. Women must stand together to campaign for change. The biggest change needed is political change, a recognition that providing services on the cheap is not only painful but is counter-productive.

The Pill and the Moon

All the talk in recent weeks and months about the lack of gender equality in society, from pay through to sexual harassment, reminded me of a statistic I was told about 10 or so years ago by one of my brilliant business book authors Avivah Wittenberg-Cox @A_WittenbergCox. (I wish I could remember the source she cited but I can’t – you’ll have to take my word for it!) It was the result of a poll that surveyed men and women on what they considered to be the greatest achievement of the twentieth century. The answers spoke volumes. For men, the greatest achievement was space exploration and putting a man on the moon. For women it was the ‘birth’ of the contraceptive pill. It’s just one statistic, one survey, but it made me think if we amplify that, what does it tell us about the choices that are made in all aspects of our lives? What does society place most value on? What and who do we choose to celebrate? Where do we choose to spend our money and for what purpose?

Sarah Corney’s recent guest blog cited the journalist Polly Toynbee’s assertion that gender equality and liberation for women “means digging up the roots of human culture”. On the 100th anniversary of (some) women’s right to vote in the UK, I was delighted to hear a discussion between two academics on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme – who happened to be women – Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at Kings College, London (amongst other things) and economist (amongst other things) Ann Pettifor. During the interview, which debated whether feminism is too interested in the top 1% (which is an important topic for another day) they touched on how feminism stays away from the subject of the economy. Acknowledging that the economics profession is male dominated, they suggested that this has a significant impact on the economic choices that we, as a society, make. Women, they posited, would typically prioritise and invest in the public sector, in our health and welfare system, in education. If our economic narrative is male, what stories do we choose to tell, which (to mix my metaphors) ‘green shoots’ do we choose to nurture?

It’s interesting to note that, following the global financial meltdown in 2008 (from which we are still suffering) many students of economics started to question the prevailing economic orthodoxy; what they were experiencing and witnessing at first hand was not what they were being taught. As Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England wrote in the Foreword to the book that came out of this movement, Econocracy, it was not only the neoclassical model of the economy that was ‘found to be lame’, but that policy makers placed too much reliance on narrow technical models, to our peril.

Of course, what gives me, and others, optimism, is that students across the world challenged and are challenging this prevailing orthodoxy. As Vince Cable, currently leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK and former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, says in his review of the book, “It makes the case for pluralistic economics to address such questions as financial instability and climate change.”

We need a plurality of thinking, of views, if we are to change the over arching (male) narratives inherent in our key societal structures: not just in economics, but also in the legal and criminal justice system, in education, in health care as well as in business and the world of work. Of course, diversity of thinking is not just a gender issue, but it’s a good place to start.

So, in a world of finite resources, and facing the world’s grand challenges, where would you focus your efforts, what would you address? When people look back on the 21st century and speak of our greatest achievement, what will they answer? Will it be the 21st century’s equivalent of the Pill or the Moon?