Working Women’s Charter

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):

  1. Equal pay
  2. Equal occupational opportunities
  3. Equal access to education and training
  4. Equal working conditions
  5. Equal legal rights
  6. Free childcare
  7. More paid maternity leave
  8. Free contraception
  9. Increased family allowances
  10. 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.

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