Feminism is failing working class women, says IPPR study


Working class women have been left behind by the advance of feminism and battles for equal pay, a new study reveals today.

Professional women in their 30s and 40s earn nearly three times as much as their unskilled counterparts, research by the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) think tank has found.

The study says that the waves of feminism that began 50 years ago have failed working class women and demands greater childcare and flexible working options for this group.

While it is unsurprising that women who gain a university degree or professional qualification earn more than those who are low or unskilled, the scale of the gap – 198 per cent - will be seen as shocking. What is more, having a degree makes less of a difference in the earnings of men with different levels of qualification – the gap between unskilled and university educated male workers is significantly smaller, at 45 per cent.

The IPPR said that while gender remains a strong factor in how much a person is paid and their career progression, class and education play a stronger role in women’s prospects – meaning that having a university degree benefits a woman more than it does a man.

The research is part of a major longitudinal study by the IPPR examining the opportunities and experiences of women born in 1958 and 1970. Analysts compared the full-time salaries of men and women born in those two years at different stages of their lives.

Women born in 1958 and working full time earned nearly 35 per cent less by the time they were 42 than men born in the same year.

But professional women earned 198 per cent more, or nearly three times as much, as their female counterparts in unskilled jobs. Professional men earned 45 per cent more than their male contemporaries in unskilled jobs, showing that working class women are being disproportionately hit.

For those born in 1970, the pay gap between men and women was marginally narrower at 29 per cent. But professional women born in 1970 were likely to earn 80 per cent more than unskilled women, showing the inequality has fallen slightly. Among men born in 1970, professional male workers earned 61 per cent more than their unskilled contemporaries.

The report suggests that there is a “decoy” effect of high-achieving, high-profile women who give the impression that the glass ceiling has been shattered and giving the illusion that women have “made it”. The IPPR says there should be a healthier representation of women in public life, with a focus on breaking down stereotypes.

Dalia Ben-Galim, IPPR associate director, said: “While feminism has delivered for some professional women, other women have been left behind. Many of the advances for women at the top have masked inequality at the bottom. The ‘break-the-glass-ceiling’ approach that simply promotes ‘women in the boardroom’ has not been as successful in changing family friendly working culture or providing opportunities for other women to advance.

“Women are still concentrated in low-paid and often part-time work. Women with lower qualifications and those who have children at a younger age are finding it harder to secure good jobs and opportunities at work.

“Improvements in the difference between the ‘average man’ and the ‘average woman’ since the 1980s have taken place against the backdrop of stagnant social mobility, rising economic inequality, and a dramatic shift in the nature of work available. Today, with squeezed living standards, wage stagnation and increasingly unaffordable childcare there is a risk that lower paid women may fall even further behind.” Ms Ben-Galim added that the rising cost of living often forced families to choose a traditional “male breadwinner”. Last year the same study revealed working women suffered a “motherhood penalty” when they had children while, by contrast, men’s earnings often increased when they became fathers – the so-called “dad bonus”.

In general, the pay gap between the average woman and man has narrowed over the last 50 years, to 9.6 per cent for full-time workers.

Among women in their 20s, the gender pay gap has all but disappeared, suggesting that today’s generation of graduates and new entrants to the workforce have benefited from the campaigns of older generations for equal pay.

The report’s authors call for a more progressive parental leave system that would give greater entitlement to fathers, helping women who want to go back to work sooner, more affordable childcare to boost the earning prospects of women on lower incomes, and better-paid, higher-quality part-time jobs to give more flexibility at the bottom end of the labour market.

The IPPR report also reveals that the number of “househusbands” has trebled in the last 15 years, although the number is still relatively small at 62,000.

Some 77 per cent of married women do more housework than their husbands, 10 per cent do an equal amount and 13 per cent say their husbands do more.

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