Today marks 50 years since the Equal Pay Act. It’s baffling to think how young that legislation is, and that we put a man on the moon before giving women the legal right to be paid the same as men for doing the same work, equivalent work, or work of equal value. Fifty years on and in the face of a global pandemic, that promise of equality has never looked more fragile.
It was the women of Dagenham that delivered this blow to the status quo. They went on strike in 1968 because their work as machinists was downgraded to “unskilled” and so was their pay. Men doing equivalent work elsewhere in the Ford factory were not subject to the same devaluation. When the women put down their tools, factory bosses soon realised they couldn’t make cars without seats and there was no one else who could do the work. Machinists, they realised, were integral to the production line and sewing took far more skill than they had credited.
Fast forward half a century and for many women it feels like little has changed. The vast majority of “essential workers” on the frontlines of the Covid crisis are women, and disproportionately BAME women – funnelled into caring roles that are badly paid and insecure. Chief among them are social care workers, 80 per cent of whom are women, who have been classified as “low skilled” under the government’s new immigration plans and don’t earn enough to meet the threshold for a visa. Having risked their lives to protect the most vulnerable, they will simply be asked to leave.
The government’s failure to value care affects us all. It is what led our prime minister to tell the nation to get back to work, without a plan to reopen nurseries. It is how the chancellor let employers decide whether or not to furlough parents, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in the impossible situation of simultaneously doing childcare and paid work, and how he left huge gaps in the self-employment scheme penalising women who have been on maternity leave. It is the basis on which the government left key workers without proper protective equipment, and refused to invest in measures that could have prevented the shocking loss of life in care homes.
Women are still fighting equal pay claims on an individual basis because we have not yet won the recognition that the activities we were socialised into doing have the same value as those that men typically do. This has consequences for the gender pay gap, which sits stubbornly at around 17 per cent, when part-time work is accounted for, and which women are far likelier to do than men, and persists at around 9 per cent for full time work.
Women’s paid work is undervalued and their unpaid work is invisible, a combination of which has seen mothers all over the country desperately trying to juggle childcare and domestic work, which have ramped up exponentially for the parents who are working from home, with trying to keep up with their formal work. Research published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week found that women are doing an average of two more hours childcare and housework than men, and are nearly 50 per cent more likely to have lost their jobs temporarily or permanently.
Women in Dagenham weren’t the only ones to withhold their labour in order to show its worth. Ninety per cent of women in Iceland took the day off from paid and unpaid work in 1975, to demonstrate the enormous value of everything they do and how it was taken for granted. They refused to work, cook, clean or look after children, and as the country reached paralysis it changed everything. Reports from that day tell how children could be heard in the background while male newsreaders delivered the headlines. Iceland went on to elect Europe’s first female president, and it has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 11 times.
Coronavirus has not been the great leveller, but the great revealer of just how unequal our society and economy are. Right now, we are relying on women to save and sustain life in the face of an unprecedented threat. That makes it nearly impossible for us to down tools or even to find the time to protest.
But if this government continues to force giant leaps backwards for womankind then we will be left with no choice but to resist and rebel, and that starts with taking the day off. Beyond that, we will do #WhateverItTakes to claim our birthright as equal citizens.