No doubt this article will be met with a frosty reception in some quarters, especially since today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day. Yet, that the increase in women in the labour market since the 1970s has coincides with a sharp decrease in real earnings and conditions of employment over the same span, it remains an important subject for those of us struggling to understand the liberalisation of our economies. It must be said, however, that this was never the fault of the women who entered the market, and nor is the objective of gender equality in all aspects of life and work undesirable. In fact it is crucial, but the increase of women in the workforce over the past five decades has not brought about greater equality. The increased feminisation of the labour market has resulted in more inequality for all workers.
Once upon a time the industrial working man, as the breadwinner, expected to bring home a family wage. This was the norm for the proletarian classes until the application of the liberalising economic reforms which swept the West under Reagan and Thatcher. We all see the problems of this sexist structuring of industrial expectations. In an ideal world any worker, a man or a woman, should be entitled to a living wage capable of supporting a family, along with good, safe working conditions, and security of employment. This much is a no-brainer. Neoliberalism has failed to realise this state of parity between the sexes.
It is true that globally there has been an increase of women in industry and in all other parts of the market economy. On the surface this change in labour demographics is to be applauded, but women were never offered the same conditions as their male predecessors. Women in industry were introduced as flexible labour without the benefits of a family supporting wage. Their contribution was that of pocket money earners, which, over time, drove down the traditional conditions of men’s employment in the same sectors. It is not the case that men should have never been lavished with such riches, rather it is the case that the same should have always been given to women.
Flexibility of women’s labour was never intended to be a step towards stability and parity with the conditions of men. What was planned, and what has happened, was that fewer men were hired and those who were hired found their wages and conditions subject to the same flexibility and lower wages as the women. Ultimately the wages and conditions – both contractual and environmental – of all were loosened, making everyone more vulnerable to the whims of employers. On International Women’s Day we should take stock of the contribution of women, we must continue to seek a better balance between women and men in the workforce, but this must be achieved with the safeguarding of fairness for all.