Female Progress in the UK: Just A Fairytale?

By Gill Thorburn

The first part of this article was inspired by a recent publication by the Socialist Party which considers the present conditions that prevail for women in our society, and the historical continuities they represent. The second focuses in on the preponderance of low pay work for women, its effects on them, and on society in general, and contains a subjective account of my own experience in this sector.

 The Fantasy Family, Pushmi-Pullyu Women and the Magic Wand of the New Right.

 It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This…

In her book: ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This: Women and the Struggle For Socialism’ (2010) Christine Thomas discusses Engel’s (1884) evaluation of the historical development of the modern family unit, and the part it plays in the continued discrimination against women in present day western society.

Engels’ perspective is as relevant today as it ever was. As he relates it, the persistent inequality between men and women in our advanced times does have its roots in earlier societies, but this is not as ‘natural’ or inevitable an outcome for the genders as is commonly assumed. These preceding social arrangements have, similarly to the present Capitalist one, arisen from exploitation; where the few have been able to take control of group resources, claiming it as private property, and consequently dividing society into ruling and subordinate classes.

From Co-operation to Exploitation.

Because women have principally been involved in child-rearing their activities have centred around the home historically. But in very early societies – that of the hunter/gatherers – anthropologists now believe that there was no distinction made between the value of female work and that of the male, as all contributed to the wellbeing/survival of the group (Ginn; bjchaimongkol, 2010). Communities were of an extended kinship type, not the limited, individual family type of the present day. These were subsistence economies providing resources on a day-to-day basis, and were by necessity co-operative.

Once communities became more settled, through the domestication of animals and crop cultivation, production became more stable, and the group was able to produce in excess of daily requirements. Some, who were relieved of involvement in production, became organisers of the communal resources, controlling the stores, taking responsibility for trading and so on. They acquired prestige as a result and over time took private possession of what had previously been communal property. This was the emergence of an exploitative class, accumulating wealth and passing it on generationally. In that situation defining the kinship group more narrowly became an essential part of keeping the resources ‘within the family’.

Condemned by our genes?

The idea that there are essential differences between men and women which predisposes them to be more suited to certain tasks, and which values their contribution to society unequally, have been stubbornly persistent through time. Even today ideas that justify the dominance of men and limit the agency of women continue to rear their heads. Evolutionary psychology is one ostensibly scientific perspective which attempts to convince us that it’s ‘all in our (gendered) genes – a ‘biology as destiny’ concept (Thomas, 2010). This viewpoint cultivates an essentialist understanding of the sexes, that there is something ‘built in’ to the typical man and woman, from which there is no escape, as evolution has determined this arrangement to be a ‘best fit’ survival strategy for the race. In this scenario we are fated to keep playing out what can only be described as ‘stereotypical’ dimensions of gender such as those of masculine aggression and female nurturing. Thomas (2010) also asserts that some feminist thinking also partakes of this view, where in its radical form the highlighting of women’s oppression portrays men as intrinsically violent and aggressive, and women as caring and nurturing. Other feminists point to institutionalised male dominance in the form of patriarchy as the root of male/female inequality.

Feminists make very convincing points, and have made visible the male dominated structures which conspire to privilege men and disadvantage women. But focusing on the gender divide, that which visualises it as a problem of men versus women, tends to obscure a more significant social division whose structural inequalities affect both – which is that of Class. Through the lens of Class it is possible to see the ways that female oppression is linked to male oppression and how both are subject to its limiting effects through a very specific institution – the family.

Is the family a ‘natural’ structure?

The traditional family appears superficially to be a natural structure, and this is partly due to the fact that it has a dual function in society. From one, familiar, perspective it can be regarded as contributing to human wellbeing and security, but it also has a hidden dimension, in that it is, and was engineered to be, an effective form of social control. The family serves a very basic human need for ‘belonging’ and at its best provides emotional and material support for its members. It can provide a buffer against the adverse conditions people are likely to encounter in broader society, and the values that people place on their family are connected to the loyalty of ‘blood’ ties with their relatives, and the reciprocity that is generally a feature of that. For example, children recognise the support that parents have given them in growing up and feel obliged to return it as their parents age and require more help.

But this ‘naturalness’ of the family structure obscures the ways in which it has been shaped into its present form as a means of social control, one which perpetuates class inequalities and continues to work to disadvantage women in society.

The ‘ideal family’: Women in the home – Men out to work

 The ‘traditional’ family did not emerge out the best way for lower class people to arrange their families with respect to the different ways that women and men contribute to its running, or participate in its benefits, the duties that each take on, or responsibilities they undertake for each other’s welfare.

The ideas that have persisted till the present day were derived from an ideology imposed ‘from above’ at the end of the 19th Century. The bourgeois, property-owning class had both more means to support a family on a single income, and also promote the idea that their way was best. The argument was that, relieved of having to work outside the home, women would be able to devote more time to domestic duties thereby ensuring the greater wellbeing of the whole family.

The ‘family wage’.

An idea that one male wage would be sufficient to cater to the needs of all family members (as it did in wealthier bourgeois arrangements) did not often work in practice for working class families. Only a relatively small percentage of skilled workers received enough pay to ensure this. When wages are much lower inevitably other members of the family must go to work in order to survive. In cases where there was no male head, widows and women who had been left, having no choice but to rely on a lower paid women’s wage, lived with the threat of destitution.

This idea that men should be paid a higher wage because they have to support a family has persisted despite the great changes that have taken place in family structures up until the present day. Though it is no longer expressed explicitly a high proportion of roles historically filled by women remain both lower regarded and lower paid. If anything, there has been a trend to equalise downwards as the status and wages of much ‘male’ work have been degraded too, creating a new class of worker, the working poor. Many industries have slowly chipped away at wages to protect their profits, making changes such as those which prevent people achieving overtime rates or compensation for working unsociable hours.

Out of the idea of the male head of household comes the idea that women’s outside work in a traditional family is a part-time affair, for ‘pin money’ (an expression which supports the idea that women’s work is not essential). This contributed to the idea that it is not necessary for women to be paid on a parity with men.

The establishment of the idea that a male wage is adequate to support a family also helps foster the belief that responsibility for the weaker members of society, the sick and vulnerable, should fall on the family rather than be shared among broader society. This, at the end of the 19th Century, however, had led to a situation of widespread poverty and ill health among the working class. Attempts to overcome this led to the rise of trade unions and other collective groups, as a way of mutual support and consolidating power to fight for better conditions and pay, and argue for more wider social responsibility.

Class struggle eventually resulted in the creation of National Insurance early in the 20th century, followed in 1948 by the National Health Service. The welfare state, though generally improving conditions for women, still focused on the idea of a male worker headed household and women did not have full access to benefits in their own right, being dependent on those of the male. The welfare state eventually became a major employer of female labour in the spread of women into roles such as teachers, nurses and carers, a situation that continues to the present day.

Women workers, shifting status.

The status of working women under capitalism changes according to the needs of the ruling Capitalists at any one time. During the World Wars ideology urged women into factories, often through the use of patriotic propaganda, to fill the jobs of men who had gone to fight, though they had previously been excluded from those very roles. Once the wars were over women were forced to give their jobs up to men and return to domestic duties running the home. Following the 2nd World War the birth rate had fallen significantly so women were also encouraged to have more babies, tying them closer to the household. At the same time it was also considered acceptable for women to hold part-time jobs as the Capitalist class recognised the value to it of a ‘reserve army’ of women who could be pulled into the workforce and pushed back out according                                                                                to the varying demands of industry.

Present day developments

Women now make up at least half the workforce in developed Capitalist countries. This fact has been positively portrayed as a ‘Genderquake’ (Wolf, 1994), an indication that women have achieved equal status with men in the workforce. But it more accurately reflects a restructuring of Capitalism which, by drawing women en masse into the workplace, has been able to keep wage costs low, through exploiting ‘traditional’ ideas that women’s labour has less value than that of the male. Though women have gained a more independent attitude they have rarely benefitted as much materially. Even professional middle class women find themselves hitting the ‘glass ceiling’ as men overwhelmingly continue to occupy the high status, higher paid roles.

Most working class women find themselves trapped on the ‘sticky floor’ by comparison, as a great proportion of them are segregated into the 3 ‘c’s of cleaning, catering and caring (Thomas, 2010) – an extension of the work they are perceived to do in the home.

Neo-liberalism, ‘Flexibility or Precarity?

One new idea which emerged out of the Neoliberal stage of Capitalism has been the idea of ‘flexibility’. Widely promoted as ‘family friendly’ working it has come to mean anything but, in its application over time. Initially portrayed as to the advantage of the worker, particularly women attempting to juggle work with domestic obligations, it has come to mean something entirely different in practice. It is not, in the main, working practices that have been made adaptable to the worker but the worker who must be increasingly willing to be flexible to the fluctuating needs of the employer. This inversion demands infinite flexibility of the worker and has given rise to the short term contract, increasing use of agencies and zero hour contracts. This rarely works to the advantage of the worker, but rather imposes on them a precarious state and an inconsistent income.

Capitalist Contradictions.

The Capitalist system has relied on the structure of the traditional family, while at the same time creating the conditions which undermine it. Capitalism imposes both centrifugal and centripetal forces upon the family. Centripetal forces are those ideologies and policies which seek to constrain the family unit in this shape. Opposing them are centrifugal ones pulling women out of the home and causing tension between work responsibilities and family obligations. The erosion of overtime rates and compensation for non-standard working hours now often forces men to spend more time at work to make up pay through longer or increasingly unsociable working hours, leaving them less time to spend with their families. Both males and females work increasingly harder to achieve a reasonable income and increased stress leads to family tensions and relationship breakdown.

As stress, and the insecurity that is a consequence of low income, bears down upon families its effects become evident within wider society through increased crime, truancy and drug abuse, and it starts to become a problem for the dominant classes. Unable to face the flaws in the Capitalist system which have led to this, other reasons are looked for. The New Right have turned to scapegoating, and the creation of societal myths such as that of the morally deficient ‘feckless family’. Criticism of the system must be avoided at all costs and so the individual family must be shown to be at fault. The idea of moral decline is asserted about families which have ‘fallen apart’ and the notion of the ‘ideal family’ is resurrected with policies developed which attempt to force people back into the patriarchal structure of the nuclear family. Lone parenthood is particularly stigmatised through the idea that women have babies in order to get a house and live on welfare.

These ideas are a distraction from the real causes of family tensions and breakdown which is a Capitalist structure which forces ever increasing insecurity of income on the worker and suppresses pay to a level barely above subsistence for a mass of the workforce.

 Male control and authority

The New Right advocates male control and authority over women in the family. This ideology promises to have dangerous effects for issues such as domestic violence, the recognition of which has taken decades of effort by campaigners and activists to have regarded as a crime. Men who have suffered through changes in the workplace as traditional manufacturing jobs have given way to low paid, low status work may be all too easily influenced by this ideology into attempting to regain self-respect through dominance of women. When masculine identity has been traditionally expressed through the role as ‘provider’, one that they are no longer able to fulfil, they may be inclined to bolster a sense of waning masculinity in other ways, which may account for the current rise in use of sexist language, often involving rape ‘jokes’, and ‘laddish’ behaviour toward women.

Reproductive rights and wrongs

The New Right also seek to extend male-dominated state control over women’s bodies through such moves as anti-abortion lobbying, an attempt to weaken women’s right to make their own reproductive decisions. Though America has taken the lead in this, Conservatives in this country are also trying to make inroads on public thinking in this way. In Texas, state laws have been passed requiring women to undertake invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedures before they can be granted an abortion. The law says that a doctor must “show the woman an image of the foetus, describe its features, and make the foetal heartbeat audible”. In early pregnancy the usual ‘belly’ ultrasound is inadequate for this purpose leading women to have to undergo the transvaginal version involving the insertion of a metal wand into the vagina. In its usual application, aiding the diagnosis and treatment of gynaecological problems, this method, with potential associated discomfort, is justified since the health of the woman is at stake. Making it a lawful condition for approval of abortion has led online activists to refer to it as ‘state sanctioned rape’ (Kopsa;  Random, 2012). Other states are currently considering the adoption of this law, whose supporting ideology – which amounts to no more than a defamation of women – can be detected in statements such as those of politician Todd Gilbert (Celock, 2012), who accuses women of having abortions for reasons of ‘lifestyle convenience’. Singing from the same choir sheet, UK Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, (2012) conjures up the spurious idea of “aborting a baby because the mother is going on a ski-ing holiday”.

There is clearly a yearning among some men for the return of the kind of family where ‘Father Always Knows Best’. That the latest expression of this involves a wand is I think highly symbolic of a deep-seated desire on the part of these patriarchs to ‘magic’ women back into a position of subservience from which they believe they should never have strayed.

Golden Skirts and Harry Potter’s Elves: Women, Class and Work Inequality in the UK.

 Golden skirts for all!

If any proof were needed, though, that women’s oppression is more a class than a gender issue it is only necessary to turn our attention towards gender inequality in work as it has recently been portrayed politically, and then draw comparisons with the experience of women in the low paid sector of the workforce. Last month the Prime Minister – though revealingly he did frame it more as an economic necessity than an issue of equality – called for a fairer representation of women in the boardroom (Walker, 2012) – the ridiculously tagged ‘golden-skirt quota’. This immediately raises the question of whether male executives tend to think of themselves as wearing golden trousers! Regardless, it is suggested that enhancing female entrepreneurship to bring it into line with that of the U.S would ‘pump’ £42 billion into our economy. Perplexingly, the magical process by which this inclusivity of women would bring about that considerable economic feat is not revealed; suffice to say that it depends on ‘unlocking the potential of women’. Presumably there exists a desolate group of women whose potential is desperately locked up inside of them, awaiting only the turning of the golden key of business, which will release them from this evil spell, and transform their dowdy rags into sparkling skirts of gold. Or perhaps I’ve got that confused with a fairy tale. Whether this image of women panders more to the idea that women still need to have men (figuratively) open doors for them (and thus evidences their continued lack of agency), or is intended to expose barriers erected against female participation (albeit in a way which resolutely avoids blaming men) is anyone’s guess, couched as it is in the language of the supremely vague.

That is a side issue. What is more pertinent to this depiction of male/female inequality is what it says about how the work that women do is viewed by the government, and at what level it is perceived that changes need to be made. In our society attention is quite rightly often drawn towards the plight of women (and male) workers in Third World countries, who suffer harsh conditions in factories and sweatshops manufacturing goods for western consumption such as iPads (Coonan, 2010) and children’s toys (China Labor Watch, 2011). There is an idea that, in our own society, inequalities between men and women have been overcome to a large extent. In the late ’90s there was much talk of a ‘genderquake’ (Wolf, 1994) in which women were supposed to have redressed the imbalance between genders, with the success of female entrepreneurs such as Anita Roddick cited as proof of this. A more recent example would likely be ‘moral entrepreneur’, and A4e boss, Emma Harrison CBE, though her welfare-to-work crown is looking increasingly tarnished in light of the fraud investigations that it has now been revealed have been a regular feature of her company’s conduct of business over the past few years (Greenhill, 2012).

Women on top (and at the bottom)

This persistent focus on ‘women at the top’, exemplified by David Cameron’s call for ‘more women in the boardroom’, exposes an unbelievably narrow view of women’s employment, obscuring a far deeper inequality affecting millions of female workers. Such a narrow focus on disparities between men and women at a high status level of the workforce conceals the predicament of the huge numbers of women trapped below them in low paid work. In fact these latter women have more in common with low paid men than any ‘sisterhood’ they might share with women in professional and executive positions.

Writers such as Polly Toynbee (2003) and Barbara Ehrenreich (2002) have undertaken low paid ‘women’s work’ and concluded that these jobs, which demand an industrious attitude and often elements of self-sacrifice, are woefully underpaid despite providing essential services to society in areas such as child and elderly care, but also those where public health and safety is paramount such as hospitality and cleaning work. As Toynbee so powerfully puts it:

To clean the suit or scrub the steps of the management consultant, to care for his senile mother, to assist in the classroom of his daughter, these are called ‘ancillary’ to his mighty work, as if extraneous and not as necessary to the smooth running of society” (Toynbee, 2003, p.9).

Magical maids

The extensive research undertaken into this lower strata of the job market in the UK by a team of British researchers as part of the Russell Sage Foundation’s broad ranging ‘Case Studies of Job Quality in Advanced Economies‘ (RSF, 2012) reveals the fact that the incidence of low paid work in this country is among the highest in Europe (Mason et al, 2008, p.15). Further, it recognises that this situation has come about through ‘deliberate acts of policy’, that have weakened existing support for those in these jobs and suppressed the power of trade unions to improve wages and conditions (Solow, 2008, p.11).

In their chapter on hotel room attendants (formerly the politically incorrect, but more accurately entitled ‘chambermaids’) the authors disclose the fact that the hotel industry contains within it the highest incidence of low-wage employment in the UK (Dutton et al, 2008). Despite the essential part they play in maintaining the wellbeing of guests “Room attendants are imperceptible, even to the guests whom they service: “I liken my staff to the elves in Harry Potter – beds are made, work is done, but no one sees anyone, the majority of the work is done behind the scenes and staff are more or less invisible,” said one executive housekeeper”. Perhaps it is this lack of visibility in general of the low paid worker which causes them to be overlooked in favour of perceived inequalities that affect their higher status counterparts in the more glamorous world of business.


 The work is hard, but the pay is low…

Having spent ten years cleaning hotel rooms and offices in Carlisle I have experienced first-hand the difficulties of surviving on inadequate pay and insecure employment in a hard-working and unappreciative environment. Many women, like myself, in this sector are the main wage-earners in their family and it is the stark inadequacy of pay for such work that has led the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to attest to the substantial and increasing numbers of ‘working poor’ families in the UK today, many of whom are trapped in a ‘low-pay, no pay’ cycle of work (JRF, 2010). A recent large scale academic study estimates that 22% of our workforce is composed of low paid workers (Lloyd et al, 2008), with a substantial proportion in roles that are still traditionally filled by women.


“Things isn’t what they was, Mr ‘udson…”

Undertaking hotel work of this kind feels like stepping back in time, partly because of the ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ ethos of service which permeates the industry, partly because it is as if working regulations had never been put in place, with, for example, new workers routinely expected to waive their right to not work excessively long hours. My experience as a chambermaid mirrors that of the subjects of this research where the ‘skills’ that are seen as a prerequisite for the work are more in the nature of personal ‘capacities’ of endurance and tolerance – “the ability to work hard, stamina, flexibility in terms of working hours, and attention to detail”. The latter is an essential in a job where “Every day’s the same, every room is trashed in the same way, and they’ve got to bring it back to the standard you expect” (Dutton et al, 2008).

The low pay applied to this work tends to be justified by reference to the low profit margins and increasing competitive nature of contemporary hospitality industries, though it is recognised that the work brings many health hazards: “The physical demands…can be strenuous and damaging, involving bending, stretching and carrying heavy loads such as beds and vacuum cleaners” . Constant exposure to cleaning chemicals also poses risk to employees’ health with some containing “serious pollutants or physical irritants”. Medical research has indeed determined strong links between cleaning occupations and respiratory conditions such as asthma, dermatitis and musculoskeletal disorders (Zock, 2005; Matheson et al, 2005; Herod and Aguiar, 2006). Despite the attempts of the industry to justify the low wages on the aforementioned points of profit margins and competition, it is more true that low wages have become a ‘structural feature’ of this work whether in lower market or upper market hotels, since the latter are “doing fantastically well because they are getting a lot from customers for this quality product and paying the same to staff as their low-cost cheaper competitors”. (Dutton et al, 2008, p.121).

Cutting corners… to the quick

Hotel guests expect high standards. Hotel managers constantly seek to increase profits by reducing costs. The means by which the latter is achieved are as invisible to the general public as the workers who clean their rooms, inevitably revolving around manipulation of workers’ time and materials. During my employment at the hotel, what had originally been fairly effective cleaning materials were gradually exchanged for more inferior ones, as a steady stream of salesmen delivered the false economy (as any housewife would agree) of ever cheaper, weaker brands. Also by the time I resigned, the hours allowed in which to do the considerable work of stripping and remaking around 20 beds, and cleaning 13 rooms and bathrooms, hoovering and dusting, had been reduced by one full hour a day. If I disclose that the pressure of work had already often entailed ‘cutting corners’ prior to this you may be able to imagine the further impact this would have on standards of hygiene.

Appearances are primary in the hotel business, and the ‘look’ of cleanliness is easier and faster to achieve than its actual state. As housekeeping staff of fairly long-standing left, one by one, to be replaced by less experienced workers who lacked awareness of the thoroughness with which rooms had previously been cleaned, the situation was compounded. I had by then become a full-time student, reducing my hotel work to weekends, but, as the last remaining member of the ‘old’ team, found myself up against a double bind. During the week, when guests were likely to stay over, and obviously to meet the shorter hours, a minimalist degree of cleaning had been done allowing ‘unseen’ dirt to build up, such as scum on baths. The speed with which the rooms had been ‘cleaned’ during the week had evidently given a false impression to the inexperienced ‘head’ of department (a ‘revolving door’ role that could only appeal to those who were ignorant of what the work entailed, a fact borne out by the last three occupiers of the position). Exasperated at finding me energetically but fruitlessly scrubbing away at a grimy bath with the ineffective cleanser late one Sunday afternoon she urged me to ‘get a move on’. Months previously I had tried to explain to the general manager that the cut in hours was forcing standards down, but he had instructed me to leave ‘worrying about standards’ to him. Shortly afterwards sparkling new sliding glass doors were installed at the hotel entrance. Appearance it seems was most definitely all.


I have occasionally reflected on what standard of cleanliness might have prevailed since I left the hotel, since there was now no-one there who had any of the training I had received, nor to put it bluntly, any idea of what it meant to actually clean a room hygienically. I was recently dismayed to discover, via website reviews of the hotel, that management have managed to shave yet another hour off the beginning of the housekeeping working day.

A large percentage of the hotel trade is devoted to catering to business, a sector which is seen as both more profitable and less troublesome than the unpredictable coach tours and ‘passing trade’. There is a certain poetic justice in the idea that those most likely to be exposed to the significant risk which results from imposing impossible working conditions on workers at that level, and attempting to squeeze more work out of them for less pay, are the very group which generally experiences the most privileges in work. And it is the one which David Cameron wishes more women to be included within. I think the term most commonly used by economists to describe this effect is an ‘externality’ – ‘a consequence of an economic activity that is experienced by unrelated third parties’. Every action does indeed have its consequences, and not only for the low paid workers who toil invisibly behind the scenes in many jobs which service the public. The worker exhausted and demoralised by punishing, unfairly paid work, or who has no choice but to work when sick, may be preparing your food, servicing your hotel room or caring for your elderly relative or child. Wouldn’t you feel better knowing that they had time to do their work properly, and were paid a fair rate for the work they do?

David Cameron is quite correct to refer to inequality in UK industry today but the injustice is not that there are not enough women drawing executive pay in the boardroom, it is that those at the bottom, both men and women, doing work essential to society and the economy, are forced to sacrifice both a decent standard of living, and often their health, for the sake of corporate profits. This is a situation the effects of which, ultimately, have an impact on us all.


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