A British court has decided that paying mostly female caregivers less than mostly male gardeners and garbage collectors constitutes gender discrimination. The decision raises the question: what does income equality really mean?
When we talk about a gender wage gap in this country, we often mean women getting paid less than men for the same jobs. And while this has long been an issue, the pay gap between industries dominated by men and those dominated by women is important too. Doubters like to chalk this up to women naturally choosing less "demanding" professions, but I'd be far from the first to note the possibility that jobs considered traditionally male are valued more highly than those seen as "women's work."
According to Christopher Hall of the Telegraph, the specific case at hand concerned a pay scale introduced in the sixties by the Sheffield City Council, which offered its manual laborers productivity bonuses. The Council set aside no such bonuses for its predominantly female caregivers and housecleaners (a mismatch between the Telegraph headline and text makes the women's job category a little hard to figure out, but it seems that, as in the US, caregiving and housecleaning are often linked). When the caregivers argued last year that the arrangement was discriminatory, a court decided that it was fair to deny them bonuses because their productivity was "not measurable." But now, one Lord Justice Pill has ruled that, "The effect of the productivity bonus...is discriminatory. A sexual taint is present."
Had such a decision been handed down in the US, critics would certainly begin complaining that employers would be forced to pay women wages they didn't deserve, or to pay the same wage for every job, regardless of qualifications. I'd wager this backlash will happen in England too. It's certainly true that in a capitalist economy, paying different salaries for different jobs is unavoidable — but what's is avoidable is automatically valuing "men's work" higher than women's. The tribunal that initially dismissed the carers' case perhaps unintentionally spelled out what may be the bias of many employers: "men's work can be measured to provide a benchmark for productivity and the women's work cannot."
While it's true that faster caregiving isn't necessarily better, and faster garbage collection probably is, that doesn't mean that caring for someone — or cleaning, for that matter — can't be evaluated. In fact, the idea that one can't put a monetary value on women's work — sometimes used in disingenuous praise of mothers — may simply be an excuse for not remunerating it. By calling women's contributions immeasurable — and the Sheffield City Council is far from the only culprit here — employers and society cunningly exempt themselves from having to measure them. This may not be the only prejudice at work — men were traditionally paid more because of the assumption that they had to provide for families, and this assumption may have stuck around in the form of higher wages for male-dominated jobs.
Of course, at least in the US, such jobs are disappearing at a faster rate than traditionally female-dominated ones. The solution to this may not be to bemoan a "man-cession," but to stop thinking of jobs in such rigidly defined gender categories. The number of jobs that require large amounts of upper-body strength is declining (not to mention the fact that plenty of women have such strength in spades), and there's absolutely no reason why men couldn't excel at caregiving or any other traditionally female field. I don't mean to trivialize the real losses of men whose livelihoods have been casualties of the recession, nor do I think retraining — especially in midlife — is easy. It's also true that men simply moving into existing stereotypically female jobs won't solve the simple problem that there aren't enough jobs to go around. But a society where work was not divided by gender would be a more just society — and it might even be a more productive one.