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Gendered Lives

Gender Inequalities in Production and Reproduction


Edited by Jacqueline Scott, Shirley Dex & Anke C. Plagnol


Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2012

Hardcover. xiv+ 231 pp. ISBN 978-1849806268. £69.95


Reviewed by Pat Thane

Kings College, London



This collection of essays derives from a research network funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council which explored key aspects of what has and has not changed concerning gender inequalities in society, home and the workplace mainly in Britain, mainly since the 1970s, when the pioneering Equal Pay Act, 1970, and Sex Discrimination Act, 1975 were designed to achieve change. Not too surprisingly, the overall conclusion is that there are ongoing changes, but they are gradual and incomplete. The value of the essays lies in the exploration of what has stimulated and what impeded change.

The first essay, by Hobcraft and Sigle-Rushton, examines the impact of early childhood disadvantage on later life, using data from two of the invaluable British cohort studies which since 1946 have followed samples of individuals from birth through their life-courses so far. It is well known that the experience of early childhood can decisively influence life-chances. The authors find that gender influences these chances less than socio-economic conditions and that, depressingly, those born in 1970 suffered greater disadvantage by the time their reached their thirties than those born in 1958. If the gender gap has narrowed somewhat since the 1970s, unfortunately that between richer and poorer has moved in the opposite direction, as much evidence now shows.

Bukodi , Dex and Joshi also draw on the studies of the cohorts born in 1946, 1958 and 1970 and find some signs of convergence over time on male and female career trajectories—more marked in the public than in the private sector—, though women are held back by part-time work for which many British women opt after childbirth (in numbers surpassed only in the Netherlands and Switzerland) due often to the difficulty of finding child care. Interestingly, they find that educational achievement was the most important determinant of occupational achievement for women in all three cohorts, while father’s occupation and family background was more influential for men, though the reasons are unclear.

Gershuny and Man Yee Kan use a combination of cohort evidence and time-use diary data from twelve OECD countries to show that the gender gap in performing unpaid work in the home is also closing, with women doing less as their hours of paid work rose. But change is slow, with women still doing more and focussing on cooking, cleaning and caring, while men provide less personal services such as gardening, repairs and shopping. Convergence is hampered also by high rates of partnership break-up since the 1970s, normally leaving mothers with lower incomes and responsibility for childcare. It has moved fastest in countries, such as in Scandinavia, with better child-care provision and a commitment to family-friendly policies.

Another study examines whether pooling finances, or keeping them separate, encourages equality between partners, with rather inconclusive results, since some sharing is hardly avoidable in a partnership, though women fare best when they have some financial autonomy. A study of economic migrants to Britain, half of whom are now female, recently mainly from eastern Europe, finds that gender is often less important than race or country of origin in determining the types of low-wage employment on offer, with men recruited to domestic and caring jobs once defined as female.

Perhaps the most revealing chapter, by McLaughlin and Deakin, asks why employers have been slow to embrace the ‘business case’, that gender equality is good for business because it helps companies attract and retain valued employees and to understand diverse customer needs, among other things. Successive UK governments have been reluctant to introduce more stringent legislation imposing gender equality at work in the hope that the ‘business case’ will eventually win employers over. This study, based on interviews with public and private sector employers and published data suggests why there is so little sign of this happening in the private sector, where the pay gap, among other inequalities, is much wider than in the public sector, as wide as 40% in financial services for full-time employees. Perhaps the most revealing finding from the interviews was the large number of private sector companies who refused to be interviewed on the issue, and the strong signs that many of them didn’t care about the principle of gender equality so long as they could recruit staff and their share prices were stable. The (male) authors conclude that, if there is to be real change there must be ‘robust’, ‘targeted’ legislation against discrimination at work.

A study by Scott and Plagnol of ‘work-family conflict’ in seven countries of northern Europe suggests that there is less tension between couples when unpaid work is equally shared and they experience equality in paid work, though they have no clear recommendations as to how this desirable equality is to be achieved, other than by disseminating findings such as theirs.

Jane Lewis concludes the book with a survey of policies concerning gender equality and work-family balance across Western Europe, with comparisons with the US, which is a notable laggard in relevant areas, including maternity leave and childcare. This essay is useful, and notably clear and jargon-free compared with much that precedes it. It stresses the importance of parental leave and affordable childcare for all mothers in paid work if they are to have any hope of achieving equality, especially single mothers (whose particular challenges are underexplored in this book). The UK has gradually improved provision of maternal leave, while paternity leave remains limited and under-compensated. Child-care, and support for the early years generally, improved under Labour governments from 1997 to 2010 but remains inadequate, with grandparents, as in all countries with inadequate public provision (i.e. all but Sweden, Denmark and France), filling the gap. In Britain, currently, one in four working mothers relies on grandparents (mainly but not exclusively grandmothers) for childcare; some grandmothers give up their own paid work to help their daughters. Of course, some grandparents themselves need care or themselves care for a still older generation. Another surprising gap in this volume is any discussion of the effects on gender inequality of the growing demands, mainly on women, to care for the growing numbers of older people in all developed societies.

Lewis, like the other contributors, convincingly concludes that there is slow but measureable progress towards greater gender equality in and out of the home, but by no means equally in all countries, families and workplaces. The volume was evidently completed shortly after the 2010 UK election, which brought to power the Conservative- Liberal Democrat Coalition government. It would be interesting to have a postscript on the trajectory of gender balance in Britain since the election, indeed in all countries experiencing austerity regimes. Though in Britain at least as important as austerity is the government’s ideological preference for private against public enterprise and hostility to regulation. Several essays mention that Labour, shortly before the election, introduced an Equality Act which, among other things, made it mandatory for businesses to conduct, and make public, audits of the gender pay gap in their firm. The Coalition suspended implementation of this section of the Act, though it has not actually repealed it. Since then, unemployment has risen faster among women than men, due partly to cuts to the public sector, where women are disproportionately employed. Since equality of pay and other work conditions is greater in the public sector, relatively more women workers are likely to be experiencing inequality in the workplace. Measures to support poorer children through the early years have been cut back and cuts to local authority budgets have led to closure of already inadequate childcare provision. Private childcare, already often of poorer quality than public provision, has risen in cost, forcing some women to give up work because they cannot afford it. There are pressures on the government to end maternity leave and other ‘regulations’ said to be unduly constraining business growth, but the polls showing women voters turning against the Coalition, and, perhaps, a large women’s demonstration planned for late October 2012 might induce caution.

Not all the gradual gains reported in this volume can have been lost in the past two years, but they suggest that the trajectory of change can move backwards as well as forwards.


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