We’re in the midst of a fourth wave of feminist activism and theory. Each successive wave has had a particular focus. The first, embodied in the Suffragette movement and suffragists, resulted in enfranchisement for women and, finally, a more complete form of democracy.
The second wave, peaking in the 1960s and 1970s, is usually characterised as focusing on body and home – the contraceptive pill and the legal structure of marriage both featured strongly. The third wave of the 1980s is a little more mysterious. Most academic commentators suggest it had an internal focus, as feminist activists and theorists suggested celebrating women’s agency and personal choices. Now this fourth wave appears to be affecting the workplace more than anywhere else.
There are still plenty of sex- and gender-based inequalities across the world and across industries. Politics, media, the arts, sport, religion – all have been shown up recently for reproducing inequality, exclusive practices, and violence against women (both symbolic and physical). Within this, two clear themes have emerged as central to today’s feminism: sexual assault and pay.
Talking about pay
Legislatively, there’s been one key change in the UK – a requirement for companies to publish overviews of what women are paid compared to men. This is one of MP Harriet Harman’s central achievements in her lifelong pursuit of gender equality. The amendment of the Equality Act she fought for requires organisations employing more than 250 people to report on pay differentials between men and women. It is generating a very un-British transparency on pay, a notoriously sensitive aspect of work.
Some organisations have already published their reports. The airline easyJet reports a very high 51.7% difference – in other words, the average man employed there is paid half as much again as the average woman. Accountancy firm PwC reports a 34.4% and 13.1% pay gap for its two arms, oil company Shell 21.7%. You can check the employers’ reports here.
Most organisations explain this startling difference first off by protesting that a gender pay gap does not mean unequal pay for the same job (that would be illegal). Then they carefully explain that most of the highly paid employees are men. This occupational segregation, they say, means that it’s not really discriminatory, in the sense of equal pay for equal work.
Lessons from the BBC
One British public sector organisation – the BBC – has been the focus of intense debate. As so often in the story of a sensitive workplace issue, it begins with a whistleblower – Carrie Gracie, a journalist with 30 years’ service, latterly as China editor, one of the most prestigious positions in the corporation’s news service.
Gracie discovered that her male counterparts in other regions were being paid up to 2.5 times more than her for doing similar work. She resigned, perhaps in part in order to be able to speak freely – which she then did, with anger, dignity, and persistence.
Gracie’s brave actions, and the wider realisation that many women in the BBC are being paid less than men doing similar work, provoked both mobilisation – the BBC Women group formedto protest this injustice collectively – and a mixture of disdain and defensiveness from men.
Notably, one of the BBC’s highest paid presenters, John Humphrys, was recorded joking to one of Gracie’s more highly paid equals, Jon Sopel: “Oh dear God, she’s actually suggested you should lose money.”
We don’t know what Sopel thinks about this as a possibility. Humphrys’ tone seemed to be a mix of amusement and horror. Yet Humphrys has agreed to a pay cut following a somewhat embarrassing public response to what he called his “banter”.
So is this the answer? If men gave up some of their pay cake, would equality happen more quickly? And, perhaps more important, would men agree to it?
Slicing things differently
These questions are interlinked. We know from every previous wave of feminist activism that many men fear loss of status and power, two things manifest in work and pay. And resistance to this can be individual or institutional – British trade unions were notorious in the 1960s and 1970s for protecting men at the expense of women, often arguing against regrading or attempts to recognise skilled work done by women. Some professions are also fiercely resistant to greater diversity and inclusion.
So it’s very doubtful that individual action will have any effect. Most managers would respond to a request for a pay cut with puzzlement, and then maybe gratitude at the chance to cut the wage bill. But there’s no guarantee that the saving would be redistributed. In fact it would be very difficult to transfer this through the bureaucracy of the average organisation, in which pay is negotiated either individually or through trade unions.