BOOK REVIEW / Still down-trodden after all these years: Because of her sex - Kate Figes: Macmillan, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Online
FOR all the rhetoric of equality and equal opportunities, we still live in a society that is structured around notions of gender: 'We see only men or women, rather than individuals with distinct needs, differences and contributions to make to society. And as a society we still do not afford women equal citizenship with men,' writes Kate Figes in Because of Her Sex: The Myth of Equality for Women in Britain.

Figes's argument is that although, in terms of cultural representations and personal relationships, women have begun to emerge from the stifling stereotypes of femininity to embrace a wider range of roles and choices, in respect to paid employment, they have in fact suffered notable setbacks. The aim of her book is to explore and explain these discrepancies, this 'myth of equality'.

The focus of the book is the failure of equal pay legislation to improve women's wages. Having examined the evidence, Figes concludes that, 'So long as whole areas of employment are segregated by gender, the average pay of women can be held down without breaking the tenuous law that 'guarantees' equal pay between the sexes.' The equal pay laws, in other words, are a con. Work continues to be almost as gender-segregated as ever, most notably at the very bottom and the very top of the wages and work hierarchies: the poorest, part-time, menial jobs are the almost exclusive preserve of female workers; and, despite some limited progress, the doors of the top board rooms continue to remain closed to notions of female equality.

If it is true, as Figes argues, that 'society cannot afford to forgo the economic and welfare benefits of equality', why then does this discrimination against female workers continue? 'Given the political will, it doesn't have to be like this,' she writes. But 'political will' is not simply a matter of people pulling themselves together and being fair and decent (although change on an individual level is, of course, crucial). There are deep structural forces that keep such iniquities in place, and we live them out in profoundly complex, frequently unconscious ways as men and women at the end of the 20th century.

Because of Her Sex cannot even begin to address these issues because the book is mired at the level of anecdote and individual will. Floundering in this analytical void, Figes turns to generalisations and platitudes about relations between the sexes ('A woman who has been let down by a man may feel sore for a while, but most are intelligent enough to see the opposite sex as something more varied than a pack of cards.'), generalisations that are almost exclusively focused on the lives of white, middle-class, heterosexual women. And, while she does a commendable job in marshalling the facts relating to work and pay, she lacks the economic background to explain changes in work patterns that have occurred irrespective of gender. She also seems unable to summon up the political will to discuss why the greatest damage to the working conditions for the poorest workers has occurred under the last 15 years of Tory government.

Figes's book may be useful if it gets through to those readers who had mistakenly thought women were now able to achieve equality in the work force with men, but it adds nothing to an understanding about the construction and maintenance of gender divisions. The point may well be to change the condition of women's lives, but, without interpretation and analysis, action will be impossible.