We spoke to old-school feminist Prue Hyman about inequality, destroying capitalism and the failings of 'Lean In' feminism.
(image via #wocintech)
Women in New Zealand are, on average, still earning 12 percent less than men.
For Māori and Pacific women, that increases significantly, with the gap for Māori women sitting at 24 percent, and Pacific women earning 30 percent less than the average man. In the last decade, progress on closing the wage gap has completely stalled, with the divide between men and women actually worse today than it was five years ago.
New Zealand economist Prue Hyman has just written a book: Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Income Inequality where she explores why so little progress has been made on closing the wage gap. VICE spoke to her about what's slowing us down, and how to solve a widening divide.
VICE: Since you first started writing about this, we've had a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General. Do you think women reaching these higher strata - politically or as CEOs - is that resulting in improved lives for women overall?
Well, one of my worries is it doesn't, necessarily. One would hope that if you got enough of a head of steam of women, so that you've got, say, half of all top positions being women, that that would make a difference. That they would have a different perspective from men on average, and that if there were enough of them they would mentor women lower down, they would make things better for lower-paid women. But it seems that may not be the case. Just the one or two in top positions doesn't make much difference at all. And I have what I call "my 50 percent nightmare," where you get 50 percent of women represented everywhere and things still haven't changed. Because the other things - race and class differences, haven't been attacked at all.
Yeah it's interesting, there's kind of been this rise in the last few years of what we call "lean in feminism" after the Sheryl Sandberg book—of very top level, high-powered women giving this advice about women taking individual responsibility for their success. Where do you think that sits?
No, I don't think it's an option [for solving the wage gap] at all. It's very individualistic: "I made it, anyone can make it", as long as they behave more like men traditionally do. It's the same sort of advice as "if you just push, if you're assertive."
You wrote your first book on women and economics back in the mid 90s—what do you think has changed from then? What stays the same?
Honestly, not much has changed. Some things have got better: like on average women are being educated to a greater extent, and now hold the majority of first degrees. So women are getting onto ladders to a greater extent. But other things have got worse. The whole neoclassical economics orthodoxy, the whole business has turned toward individualism and self-reliance right through the Western world. And that's made things worse. The world's been going on and essentially there's more power to employers and big business and governments, and less power to trade unions and those representing people who are less advantaged. And I think that's been bad for women, but especially bad for women at the bottom: women in low-paid occupations, and Māori, Pacific and refugee women who are overrepresented there. That's gone in a significantly worse direction, to an extent where maybe on average it even cancels out [the gains made at the top].
Do you think in feminist circles we're sometimes at risk of focusing on gender alone, and lose sight of the way it intersects with other forms of marginalisation or power—like race, class?
I think the concentration only on top women does play into that. I worry that that's the only part of the feminist agenda that the current government and a lot of current people care about—you know, more women on boards and all that stuff. Now I've nothing against all that but I think it's a much more minor aspect of the feminist agenda. So I think there's certainly a tendency for there to be over-concentration on just gender when other aspects: class, race, disability, sexual orientation, the whole works, can end up being more important.
How do we account for the wage gap - is it possible to break it down into how much is prejudice, how much is women being overrepresented in lower paid jobs?
It's very hard to break it down in quantitative terms. There have been a lot of complicated statistical efforts to do so. But it really isn't easy. It's not difficult to realise what the key factors are, and a lot of that is bound up with women still being involved much more than men in the caring world and traditional 'household' roles.
So that is one large component. And then another large chunk comes from the fact traditionally female dominated occupations are undervalued. It doesn't have to be deliberate machiavellian action by men that does that, it's just that the skills involved in traditionally female work, like caring work, are seen as natural to women. Whereas all of the skills involved in traditionally male work are valued properly.
And how do you solve it? What are our steps forward to closing the gender pay gap?
[laughs] Well in my idealistic days, I wanted total revolution! Get rid of capitalism all together, have a huge change in which the whole way society is structured, so it is more concerned with co-operation over competition, equality over hugely increased differentials. I think it's perfectly possible to envision a society like that - and I think we need to as well, because the coming trends are to ignore all the other problems linked with this, like global warming climate change, population pressures. The more individualistic and growth-oriented we are, the worse we do on those things. So I think it's in everybody's interests–except the very few wealthiest white men and some of their companions–it's in almost everybody's interests to look at how we need to change our society more generally.
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