‘Check your privilege’ is a phrase that increasingly crops up in equality debates and no more so than in feminism. It aims to hold to account the white, educated middle class women who spearhead the feminist movement, asking them to consider their narrow breadth of experience before speaking on behalf of ‘all women’. It has been a divisive concept, but the idea that feminism is only for the elite is nothing new.
A report from Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggests that recent feminist campaigns are on the wrong track and the movement should, in essence, ‘check its privilege’ in order to change things for the many rather than the few.
The report, Great Expectations – Exploring the Promise of Gender Equality argues that a focus on ‘women at the top’ – that is to improve female representation in politics and on corporate boards – will not produce the changes needed to empower all women. Campaigns such as the Fawcett Society’s ‘Women and Power’ focus on getting already educated and privileged women into powerful positions rather than transforming the economic and social landscape that keeps most other women lagging behind.
The report combines statistical analysis of the National Child Development Study, the British Cohort Study and Understanding Society with interviews of women in 50 families to examine progress on women’s equality across three generations.
Through this, the researchers examine the barriers to equality that women in the UK still face and conclude that legislation can only go so far. Women have gained legal equality in most areas and whilst this has helped reduce discrimination in the workplace, for example, there are other hurdles it won’t address.
Research released in July from the Economic and Social Research Council concluded that despite the increase in female breadwinners, women still do most of the housework and IPPR’s own research discovered that the burden of children and the elderly is still very much the female domain.
How fairly care work is organised is heavily correlated with women and men’s educational and class background. The more educated a woman is, the longer she waits to have children, which tends to result in a more equitable split of housework and childcare. Fathers too are increasingly spending more time with their children but these fathers are also more highly educated.
Little has changed for women with no higher education or who work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. These women tend to have children earlier, in their teens and twenties, but the impact this has on their potential earnings is actually worse than for the previous generation of women. Those born in 1958 who had children early would expect to earn 17% less than women without children. For those born in 1970. the figure is 20%.
Progress is patchy
Progress towards equality has been patchy and uneven. The gender pay gap, a marker often used to signify women’s progress or lack thereof, is actually greatest now between women rather than between the sexes. Class and educational background are the cause of the differences here too.
Women born in 1970 without a degree could expect to earn 59% of her male counterparts’ wages, where a female graduate could earn 75% of a man’s wages. This analysis is based on full-time wages, but for part-time workers, (the majority of whom are women) the difference in wages between a man and a woman is around 36%.
The pay gap between men and women graduates in their twenties has all but vanished and only starts to occur again when women have children. Poor provision and uptake of paternity leave means it falls to women to care for their newborn and take on greater responsibility for household chores at the same time.
Lack of well paid, flexible work means women with children are forced to ‘down skill’, taking jobs below their skill level to fit around child care. No such correlation exists for men. In fact it seems that having children can even benefit a man’s earning prospects. These factors lock women into the ‘motherhood trap’, an economic inequality which women struggle to overcome.
So what should be done? The IPPR report calls for a new, transformative type of feminism, one that aims to empower to change their inequitable working conditions rather than rely on ‘women at the top’ to change it for them.
Transforming the lives of all
Legislation can play a role in this, for example higher paid, more flexible parental leave options would encourage more men to take paternity entitlements thereby improving the gender division of childcare. Better quality part time jobs and the right to receive (rather than just request) flexible working would make it possible for parents of both sexes to combine work and family life. Finally, limiting the working week to 40 hours would also encourage men, who work longer hours than women, to spend more time at home.
But only some of the change can come from parliament, IPPR argues. The rest must come from the democratic renewal of institutions where women must have a stronger voice in the decisions that most affect them. Instead of co-opting more women onto corporate boards, for example, poorly paid workers should be given greater power in corporate governance. Flexibility should occur at the bottom as well at the top of the labour market and we should aim to raise the status and pay of the jobs that women do, especially care work.
Calls for ‘equal opportunities’ simplifies the complex needs and experiences of women as a group. A focus on women’s ‘individual rights’ also undermines the collective power and interests of underrepresented groups to influence decisions that shape their lives. Getting women on corporate boards is not enough. Those in positions of power must continue to check their privilege to ensure they fight for changes that transform the lives of all women not just those with the loudest voice.
Polly Trenow is an independent researcher and writer specialising in gender and economics.