What do Theresa May and
Grayson Perry have in common?
Maybe not very much. But on Desert Island Discs recently, May chose Walk Like A Man as one of her numbers. She hurriedly added that much though she swings along to the song, she did not mean it as a message to any ambitious females, who should walk their own walk.
Recently in the New Statesman Perry asks, how did the straight, white man get the keys to the kingdom, and when will he give them back? He goes for ‘Default Man’ as the label for this, saucily explaining his reasons : “I like the word ‘default’, for not only does it mean ‘the result of not making an active choice’, but two of its synonyms are ‘failure to pay’ and ‘evasion’, which seems incredibly appropriate.”
I doubt if May would go far along with that line of thinking, but there is some interesting overlap in their refusals to accept the standard male norm. Perry expresses very well what I have been arguing in making the case for ‘reverse convergence’ in respect of careers:
“Default Man feels he is the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged. Default Man is the zero longitude of identities.” (my stress). We need a redrawing of the maps (or is it a reorientation of compasses), with a different set of standard reference points when it comes to defining careers and evaluating competences. Included in this might be more men actively choosing to pursue horizontal careers, not the default vertical orientation.
Maybe Grayson will take to wearing leopard skin shoes. Meanwhile, back at the statistical ranch, I came across some interesting figures – led to them, once again, by the excellent Flip Chart Fairy Tales. In early 2012, the numbers of men and women in ‘Professional Occupations’ was more or less equal. Now, women are out ahead, with nearly 2.8 million in that category, compared with 2.55 million men. The number of professional women has grown by 4.8% in the last year, whilst men have gone down by 0.5%. The trend is pretty clear.
But link it, as FCFT does, to pay: the number of people earning over £20K has gone down. Is this a coincidence – that as women come to the fore in professional occupations the modal salary (overall – not just for professionals) is dropping? I’m sure there is more to it than this. But we may have here at least a partial explanation of the ‘hollowing out’ of the labour market: it’s to do with how pay is determined, as well as with technological change…..
We went last week to the Almeida Theatre‘s extraordinary production of Merchant of Venice. It’s set in Las Vegas, with gaming machines and glitz everywhere, and intermittent appearances from an Elvis imitator. Portia is a dizzy blonde on 6-inch heels, and the competition to win her hand is pitched as a TV reality show. The accents are full-on American, except for Shylock who speaks with a thick German intonation, initially from behind a broad business desk.
For the first three acts I enjoyed the imagination that had gone into it and laughed at the jokes embedded into the glitz, but wondered how they were going to pull it into meaningful tragedy. The usual acid test for this play is how to conjure up sympathy for Shylock, such that we feel for him as he bleeds. In this production, the trial scene was truly dramatic;a semi-naked Antonio is strung up on a hook , his torso convulsing in gruesome anticipation of Shylock’s knife. Portia intervenes, dressed in a smart male business suit and flat shoes; and Shylock is spat upon and dismissed.
The coup comes in the last act. Generally this is an overlong working out of the joke which Portia and her maid Nerissa play on their respective lovers. In their lawyers’ disguise they have managde to extract from them the rings that the men promised never to let go, and can now exact their revenge. In this production, the women (or at least Portia) carry this through with real sharpness, and none of the standard affectionate teasing. And then comes the coup: right at the end, Portia, having revealed herself to her husband Bassanio, goes to her clothes bag and pulls out her gear – the big blonde wig and the silver heels. She gets one shoe on and then almost collapses in tears. Instead of falling happily into her husband’s arms, she crumples miserably. There’s no happy ending, for anyone.
Our view, huddled in theatre-bar conversation immediately afterwards, was that Portia had tasted freedom, and then found herself forced back into captivity . In her first appearance, in Act 1, she says: ” O me, the word ‘choose!’ I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike.” She is the passive prize of a competition. Conventionally we are glad when Bassanio wins her, as her preferred suitor. But – and here is the production’s originality – Portia turns out to be seriously clever in her legal thinking, even doing it on the hoof. She is much more than a confection of garish pseudo-sexy clothes. Having had the chance to show her talents, she now finds herself thrust back to her previous role, with Bassanio likely to spend more time on his (strongly homoerotic) friendship with Antonio than with her. She wants to choose what to do with herself – and can see that she’s heading straight back to the Vegas lifestyle. I thought this was a brilliant interpretation – and a wonderful illustration of the Paula Principle.
I was at a City Event yesterday: capital letters for the Power & Part-time Top Fifty awards. It was bright, cheerful and positive as the achievements were recognised of 43 women and 7 men who had demonstrably successful careers on a part-time basis. Many of them were on 4-day weeks, but quite a few work on three days or even less. One man is on a 9-day fortnight, which sounds to me as if ‘part-time’ is a label which stuck only precariously to him.
I had several interesting conversations with winners or their sponsors, who all had good stories to tell. I asked them (as per previous PP posts) whether they think ‘part-time’ is a helpful term. Most of them have come to terms with it as individuals, but agree that it’s not generally helpful. One woman told me that her husband also works part-time, I think in a logistics company, and gets regular stick for it. The consensus was that if we could move to ‘flexible working’ it might better – a category which includes full- as well as part-time. The key argument is that in advertising jobs flexible working should be the default position.
Anyway, I happened also to be browsing the European Quality of Work Survey. It asks two questions relevant to flexitime: Can you vary your start and finish times? and Can you accumulate hours for time off?
The chart gives the answers for the UK on the first question. The UK has higher averages for both men and women (only 45% of EU men and 40% of WU women can vary their start and finish times); but there’s a big difference between the genders.
Here’s a (possibly) surprising further comparison: the country with the biggest gap is Sweden, where 69% of men and 56% of women can vary their times. Maybe that means that Swedish men are more involved in the school runs etc; but it’s still a big gap.
The same picture emerges on the accumulation of hours for time off. In the UK, 48% of men say they can do this, compared with 44% of women. EU figures are 47% and 41%; Swedish are 74% and 68%.
So the P&P-T evening left me with two thoughts. One is that there is still massive scope for more flexible working, across most sectors and most organisations. Secondly, it is decidedly curious that the gender gap runs the way it does on this…..
We know that the ‘miracle’ of the UK labour market reflects trends that most of us are not happy with: people are working for lower wages and in greater insecurity. On top of this, they are working fewer hours, so incomes are dropping, and people’s uncertainty about their employment depresses their wellbeing.
The table below, from Craig Holmes’ contribution to a most interesting set of papers from the Policy Network, shows that ‘self-employment’ has grown considerably faster for men than women, and we know that this often disguises un- or under-employment. We also know that underemployment generally is growing, where women and men want to longer hours but can’t (overemployment also exists, especially for older professional men).
But it’s part-time employment that interests me most, as readers of this site will know. We know that part-timers are generally regarded as less committed to their work, even though many of them work beyond their hours, and that shifting to part-time employment is usually near-fatal for a career. These are major reasons why women work below their competence level. So why do I find a ray of light in the figures below, which show a big proportionate jump in men working part-time?
The answer is that I believe it is only when a significant proportion of men, across all levels, work part-time that we shall get a real change in attitudes and practices in relation to part-time working, and women be enabled to make full use of their competences. Or maybe (weaker version) we can say that the pace of change will accelerate the more men there are in this position. That’s a matter of realpolitik, not a normative judgement on my part.
So although it’s causing a lot of pain, it’s just possible that the jump in male part-timers might open the way for change for employment conditions for all in this category, if we can seize the opportunity. In another of the Policy Network contributions, Sylvia Walby addresses exactly this issue (though not specifically from angle of the Paula Principle). She argues:
1. the regulation of employment should be improved so that more women can stay attached to the same employer before and after childbirth;
2. women who are intending to return to employment after a break (but not the same employer) should get access to free training, so they can re-enter the labour market with refreshed up-to-date skills; and
3. applying the practice of ‘gender budgeting’ so that the gendered costs and benefits of financial decisions can be made more visible.
I’d strongly support all of these: especially the second because it naturally it appeals to my continuing belief in the value of training, and the third because as the PP shows we are wasting an awful lot of skill and experience.
High-quality part-time work could also be high-productivity work – something we need a lot more of. So maybe now could be the time to argue for a real sea-change in attitudes and practice in relation to part-time work, to balance the notion that the real business is to expand the number of full-time jobs.
Table from : Craig Holmes, Turning over the ‘hourglass’ labour market argument, Policy Network, Nov 2014
We went to the Design Museum, mainly to see my daughter who works there, but also to look at the exhibition on Women, Fashion & Power. This cigarette card caught my eye because of the title at the bottom (rather blurred, I’m afraid): “VAD woman’. How fashionable you think her uniform is, and what it says about her power, is not the question here. I came across Voluntary Aid Detachments when I read Dorothy Whipple’s novel High Wages. It’s one of the very few books I’ve come across which deals more than just fleetingly with women’s paid work.
High Wages was first published in 1930, and has now been smartly reprinted by Persephone Books. The heroine, Jane Carter, is a single woman, intelligent but poorly educated and ill equipped with marketable skills. She has no family to support her, and is grateful to get a job in a draper’s store, owned by Mr Chadwick. She and her fellow shopworker Maggie are paid a pittance, cheated by Mr Chadwick of commissions they earn on sales and by his wife of the food which forms part of their employment ‘package’. They work about 12 hours a day, six days a week.
It is 80 years ago so, although Jane lacks qualifications, she doesn’t lack competence. She is also enterprising. She hears that Northgate, a great house on the fringe of the town, is to be turned into a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital, and suggests to Mr Chadwick that he must tender to supply the hospital with bed-linen, table-linen, towels and so on. Jane takes it on herself to go to Manchester, returns with a specimen VAD uniform, dresses a wax model in it, and announces outside the shop that such uniforms are supplied within. She gets to know about a YMCA hut to be opened near Northgate, and procures the blue overalls and veils for the voluntary helpers.
What is the result of her enterprise and skill?
“Mr Chadwick was busier than he had ever been in his life before; money rolled in. Yet he paid Jane one pound a week, and Maggie thirteen and sixpence, and looked with complacency on his wife’s schemes to deprive them of their food rations.”
Exploitation – the gap between competence, effort and reward – has always existed. Today Jane would certainly not lack qualifications and she would be far better paid, and better protected (though some of these gains are today far from secure). But the reward for her competence would still probably fall some way short of fairness, if not as far as it did in Whipple’s novel.
I said at the top that this is one of the very few examples I’ve been able to find of fictional accounts of women’s employment. I was really surprised when I set out to gather a few examples which would illustrate the PP arguments: women working in jobs which didn’t match their skills, or careers which didn’t go far . I phoned a few friends, much better read than I am, and they came back with George Eliot, of course, and quite a few others from Victorian times. But there were hardly any items from contemporary or near-contemporary fiction.
I went to the British Library and consulted a few encyclopaedias, first of women writers, and then of fiction more generally – about 10 volumes in all. It was hardly what you’d call rigorous research, but here are the results. In none of the indexes did ‘ work’, ‘employment’, ‘job’ or ‘economic’ figure at all. The nearest I could get were 5 entries in Paul and June Schluter’s Encyclopedia of British Women Writers, under ‘Women and Feminism: equality in the workplace’. Of these two were from the C19 -Anne Brownell Johnson and Charlotte Turner Smith – and the other three from the first part of C20: Olive Schreiner, Mary St Clair Sinclair and Beatrice Webb, and BW’s work was, predictably, a tract on ‘The Wages of Men and Women: Should they be Equal? (1919), so not fiction.
I half-expect to be emphatically proved wrong – tell me so; there must surely be more accounts of how women get on or not at work. I’m curious.
Exactly 40 years A Working Women’s Charter was published. You can see a good TedX talk on it by Pamela Cox. On Saturday, a group which admirably aims to provide policy debates with a historical perspective, History & Policy, ran a meeting to reflect on how many of the original Charter’s demands had been met, and what a new Charter might look like.
The first Charter’s 10 demands were (in abbreviated form – I looked for an online version of the more detailed list, but in vain):
- Equal pay
- Equal occupational opportunities
- Equal access to education and training
- Equal working conditions
- Equal legal rights
- Free childcare
- More paid maternity leave
- Free contraception
- Increased family allowances
- More women in public life.
By most reckonings, 3,5 and 8 had been achieved, and perhaps 9 also; but on most of the others progress had been much slower than might have been expected, let alone hoped for. Item 3, education and training, is of course the area where women have not only caught up but overtaken men, raising interesting questions about what we mean by ‘equality’. But of course the essence of the Paula Principle is in the contrast between this and the lack of progress on item 1 and item 4 (if we take that to include ‘careers’ under working conditions).
Josie McLellan spoke about ways in which women’s work has been undervalued, part of the programme of a European network on women’s work and value. She pointed out that the change in the ‘discourse’, i.e. the way we talked about women at work, has happened much faster than changes in actual practice. I’m increasingly interested in how work gets valued, including what kinds of subjective measure are available. We know how much we earn; and we also maybe understand how much we subjectively rate our work; but how do we go about relating these to each other? I’m intrigued by whether women in some sense put a higher premium than men do on their subjective feelings about the value of their work relative to how much they are paid. I think there’s a lot of mileage in that debate, with practical implications for assessment and reward systems.
The working group I was on had an interesting mix of age and experience. We were asked to decide on which of the items on the old charter we would drop, and what should be put in their place. We were struggling with what kind of demand we should make to prevent the penalisation of part-timers when I had to leave (sorry, but a season ticket at West Ham brings its obligations). I’m keen to see what the new Charter will look like.
As an aside, I was very struck by a remark from the youngest member of the group, a history student. She said that she found most of her male contemporaries didn’t want to talk about these issues; they either turned away, or got a bit shouty about feminism. She, like all the other members of the group bar one (and me…) had gone to an all-girls school. I guess that the correlation is strong between having been to a single-sex school and feminist engagement.
The TV series Borgen is a rich source of material for the Paula Principle. We’ve just finished watching the first series (yes, I know, behind the times). Its principal character, Birgitte Nyborg, is leader of the Moderate party going into the Danish elections. She is married to an economics lecturer, with two school-age children, and one recurrent theme is her struggle to get home in time to see the children (and her husband).
One episode illustrates in a fleeting moment the imposter syndrome – the tendency of women (more than men) to think that they are not qualified to have got to where they are. On the eve of the election the candidates all appear in a TV debate. Brigitte suddenly discards her spin doctor’s speech and speaks from the heart, beginning with the admission that she could not get into her dress because she had put on weight. “We are who we are,” she says, “and must live up to our mistakes”. She then gives a barnstorming speech about inequalities. This propels her party to a big success in the elections.
The day after the election Bent, her trusty and experienced adviser, tells her that her party is just waiting for her to take them on to a prominent position in the new coalition: “Now go in there and thank them – and lead them,” he says as they walk down the corridor on their way to a triumphant party reception. Birgitte stiffens and says, to herself more than to Bent: “But what if I don’t know how to do it?” She then walks in to greet the cheering members, and eventually becomes Prime Minister. But that flash of the Imposter Syndrome is a recurring underlying motif as she takes on her new role; we are subtly aware of the constant challenges that Birgitte faces internally, as well as from the shark-infested waters around her.
Subsequent episodes show her toughening up, losing her vulnerability and becoming plus male que les males. There’s another illustration for the PP: Birgitte exhibits convergence on to the male norm. She issues orders with increasing authority, which shades into ruthlessness (even faithful Bent gets the chop). She ends up a lonely figure, though still in power. The final episode does a pretty strong line in Danish gloom, but it’s compelling stuff. I might even go on to the second series.
We seem to be getting a flurry of useful reports just now. Last week it was the turn of the CIPD to publish very solid one on Pay progression, focussing on the barriers for the low-paid to moving up the ladder. It has a very strong Foreword from Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman (sic) of the John Lewis Partnership. He argues that our low pay reflects a productivity problem, and notes how many low-paid people have no clear paths to show them how they might progress.
The CIPD use the three categories of low-pid worker which were developed originally by the Resolution Foundation, and which have proved themselves sound:
- Stuck are those who remain in low-pay over a 10-year period
- Escapers: those who start in low pay but find their way out
- Cyclers: those who move in and out of low pay.
About 20% of the low-paid are stuck, just under 40 are % escapers and just over 40% cycle in and out. Many young people are cyclers, not surprisingly; quite a few of them, especially the better qualified, can expect eventually to escape.
It’s no surprise that women are far more likely to be stuck than men, and somewhat more likely to be cyclers. Getting on for 2 in 3 low-paid women are stick or cyclers, compared to 40% of men. Much of this is due to their greater likelihood of being part-time. Working more than a year part-time within a 5-year or 10-year period is strongly linked to being stuck.
This is predictable, and familiar to readers of the blog, but important. Less predictable is the relationship between low pay and job satisfaction. Stuck low-paid people have higher levels of job satisfaction that the cyclers or escapers. Of course this is in one sense natural: if you like your job you’re more likely to stay in it, despite the low pay. So there are trade-offs to be made, and that’s what life is made of. But the CIPD report is very strong with its concrete recommendations on how employers could do more to provide pathways for people to progress out of their low pay. They suggest that employers should think about ‘professionalising’ routes into higher pay, providing small steps upwards, especially for part-timers. Definitely on the right track.
The research also involved qualitative material from focus groups: younger and older men and women, from London and Sheffield. One quote struck chords with me. It’s from an older woman, talking about the courage required to go for a new job:
“Years ago when you went for a job you were normally interviewed by one person and they normally offered you the job there and then. But it’s not like that now; it feels like an interrogation…You feel sick before you even go, don’t you?…So if you’re the sort of person who can sell yourself, then fine, but if you’re not then once you’re in a job it’s easier to stay there.”
I’ve found in the interviews I’ve been doing that women sometimes express an ambivalence about the system of selection and promotion at work. On the one hand it seems to have become less arbitrary , i.e. less a matter of someone just fingering you for the job according to their own preferences; on the other hand women often find the process quite intimidating. They seem less comfortable with the idea of ‘selling yourself”, especially if they think it’s a matter of using the right rhetoric rather than sound evidence on what they can do. Practically that’s quite a hard one for HR people to deal with. It’s part of a wider issue around how a person’s ‘value’ is demonstrated, and rewarded.
A powerful new report, The Missing Million, has just been published by PRIME, the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise. It makes the case for enabling far more older people to stay in work. Many elements of the case are quite familiar: the challenge to us all of an ageing population; the need for individuals to assure themselves of a decent income in old age; the intrinsic value of work, e.g. in the social contacts it brings; and so on. But there is a wealth of factual analysis and insights to back it up, some of them quite surprising (to me at least). Apparently people in the UK on average believe that old age starts at 59 – lower than most countries in the EU, whose average is 62.
The report calculates that £88bn is lost to the economy from the underemployment of older people. I’m getting a bit sceptical of some announcements of this kind, since they usually involve heroic assumptions, in the understandable desire to produce an impressive headline. In this case, the assumption is that the employment rate of older people could be raised to the same as that of younger people, which is probably unrealistic, as they acknowledge. But the basic point is sound and strong: whether it’s £20 billion or £40 or £80, it’s a very big figure.
The demand is there. “ 26% of people aged 50-64 who are currently out of work, would like to work. These results are suggestive of a silent cohort who are currently out of work but could still make a significant contribution if the right employment support was in place.”
But there are many barriers: discrimination, lack of training, and so on on the one hand; and caring responsibilities and so on on the other. One of the most important sections concerns flexibility at work. This is crucial, given that older people do work long hours: analysis of the Labour Force Survey shows that those who are in work aged 50-54, work an average of 37.8 hours per week and those aged 55-59 work an average of 36.6 hours per week.
It’s very clear that many more people would stay at work if they could work shorter hours, and ones that suited their timetables more. Partly that’s linked to health: older people do suffer more from aches and pains (don’t I know it…), and serious complaints such as heart or breathing. In fact many people of all ages would rather work fewer hours; the key point is that more older people would be willing to do this and take an accompanying pay cut:
“By age 55-59, nearly 40% of all those in work want to reduce their working hours compared to 7.7% who wish to increase them. In addition, 15% of all those in employment amongst this age group would take shorter hours even if it meant less pay. Overemployment, as it is often termed, is therefore more prevalent amongst this older age group than any other in the UK. It implies that there is a large cohort of people in their 50s who are locked into long hours against their will.”
There is a set of concrete and practical recommendations to finish the report, which provides a good agenda.
On gender, though, I think the report misses a trick. The authors note:
“Until the female employment rate rises to match the male rate, women are likely to remain worse off in retirement than men and reliant on their partner or spouse for income in retirement. The equalisation of State Pension Age is likely to see further falls in female inactivity but women are also more exposed to certain key factors pulling them out of the labour market, such as caring for family members and relatives.”
But the report is a bit short on breakdowns by gender – notably on exactly the issue of the demand for flexible working. Of course they can’t include everything. But there’s an important angle missing: the report ignores the increasing skill levels of succeeding generations of women. This substantially increases (and will go on increasing) the overall cost of failing to enable older workers to carry on – whether or not it reaches the full £80 billion.
Pensions don’t grab everyone. When I was a youngish researcher, about 35 years ago, I did a study of employee trustees of pension schemes, and how much influence they had on the way the schemes were managed. I got quite into this, since it seemed (and seems) to me really interesting that there were employees formally involved in the management of huge sums of capital (even then, in the early 1980s, the funds were worth many billions). “Pension fund socialism’ was a prospect raised by the management guru of the time, Peter Drucker. In fact I got so into the topic that my friends used to make ‘switch-it-off’ gestures; years later I used to get phone calls from some of them saying “Tom, you know about pensions….”
Anyway, October’s Prospect magazine has a supplement on pensions, with a very interesting piece by Norma Cohen. She brings together demographic trends, most obviously increased longevity, with analysis of the investment challenges, e.g. bond yields. She has pertinent things to say about how people underestimate their pension needs, and the doubtful merits of increased ‘choice’ in respect of pension products.
When it comes to the problems of matching investment returns to the reality of longer lives, Cohen says “the solution to what looks like a pensions crisis may be to simply re-think what is meant by retirement.” Working longer is, obviously, a major part of this. It is already happening, to some extent: between the 2001 and 2011 censuses the percentage of those at work aged 65-75 roughly doubled, to 16%. But she also brings into the picture the opportunity costs of women choosing to have babies. These costs are, as readers of this blog will know, increasing steadily because of women’s increased skills and qualifications. Reducing these costs is necessary if we are to improve the fertility rate, and to boost economic performance sufficiently to cope with the pensions crisis.
This links nicely with the puzzle which the impressive Resolution Foundation is currently grappling with: what is happening to our labour market: why is employment holding up, whilst wages are dropping, Matthew Whitaker showed us at an event today how this is happening in a way that is historically almost without precedent. Investment too has fallen away drastically; and productivity has completed failed to grow. This is all rather weird.
Now here’s the specific link to Paula. Matthew showed amongst other things that over the period 2007-13 women’s wages have held up better than men’s, with women losing on average only 0.4% compared to men’s drop of 1%. That may seem to go against my general theme of women being under-rewarded for their competence. But my hypothesis is a) this difference is quite small relative to the way women’s skill levels have been growing faster than men’s; and b) the fact that wages overall are so depressed may be in some measure the direct result of women now having a greater share of our overall human capital. Apart from anything else (discrimination etc) we know that, individually and collectively, women negotiate less hard, on salaries as well as bonuses.
In other words, an important factor in the productivity puzzle is the following cluster of facts: a) women represent a greater share of our national stock of skills ; b) women tend to claim less in the way of wages, so c) employers get labour cheaper, and d) make lower capital investment, so that e) productivity is lower. Can anyone do the necessary calculations on this?