One woman's equality is another's poverty

The domestic service economy is expanding - and bringing some old and ugly things in its wake
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The Independent Online
Estee Lauder's "new face" for the 1990s will be Elizabeth Hurley. Overnight she has her own successful career and will doubtless soon be earning as much as, if not more than, old Hughie himself.

She's typical of today's young professional women who want careers in their own right. This is a sea change compared to just 50 years ago.

Then, wealthy women's careers came through marrying a wealthy husband. Working-class women acquired financial security by marrying and having children sooner rather than later.

But in 1995, women like Ms Hurley define their success by their own career achievements, and even working-class women work before and after getting married.

But it's not just Elizabeth Hurley who has had a lot to celebrate in this week of the 85th International Women's Day. We all have. Shared bread- winning is now the norm in three out of five households, compared to two out of five 20 years ago. And women now contribute more than one-third of household income compared to less than a quarter in 1975.

But herein lies a paradox: greater equality between women and men - a product of more and more women working - has become bound up with a stark widening of inequality in society at large.

It's a simple matter of arithmetic. If lawyers on £50,000 now marry other lawyers on £50,000, whereas factory hands on £8,000 marry other workers on the shopfloor on £8,000, then at a stroke, household inequality doubles.

And if the typical professional salary is twice the average, the typical professional household salary is likely to be four times the average dual earning household income.

Christopher Lasch in his polemical book Democracy for the Elites argues that "assortive mating" - the tendency for people to marry or live with someone from roughly the same income scale - has resulted in the consolidation of a professional elite and greater inequality at large.

In Britain, much has been made of the gap between dual-earning couples and no-earning couples - now 14 per cent of the total - but little attention has so far been paid to this other divide. Yet the gap between high-earning and low-earning couples may, in the long run, prove to be at least as significant.

The fact is, life for Lasch's professional elite is already quite different from that of low-paid dual earners. While the latter have to depend on grandparents to look after the children and must find time for housework, the double income of professionals means they can pay someone to do it for them.

The domestic service economy - the army of cleaners, child-minders, nannies and au pairs who step in while professional women, and men, go out to work - has expanded dramatically during the past 10 years. Mintel estimates that it has grown five times since the early 1980s. According to one estimate there are now more nannies than car workers in Britain.

Not surprisingly it is bringing some old and ugly things in its wake: bad work without regulations, job insecurity, exploitation, and a climate that owes more to the Victorian values of upstairs-downstairs than to the promise of female emancipation. That is why liberal guilt is now being joined by feminist guilt - the guilt that comes from the knowledge that one woman's freedom depends to some extent upon another woman's oppression. Professional career women feel uneasy that other, less privileged women have to do the work they are no longer prepared to do. They know that their cleaners and nannies have little chance of the career opportunities on offer to them, and that the relationship is profoundly unequal.

This paradox of our time has been played out on national television. The BBC drama Tears Before Bedtime, broadcast in January, laid bare the North London professional elite's habits for all to see - graphically mapping the relationships between low-paid nannies, professional career women and relatively guilt-free male partners.

It is because women are less equal to each other while more equal to the men in their lives that many of the tools of the women's movement, invaluable 20 years ago, now seem to be part of the problem.

"Take your Daughters to Work Day," set for 27 April, is a case in point. This is an American import, brought to the UK last year to universal acclaim. At first glance it is admirable: men and women, by and large professionals, take their daughters to work for the day as a way of making girls familiar with work and careers, so as to widen their horizons and boost their ambitions.

All well and good. But who are the beneficiaries? In general, and almost by definition, they will be the daughters of professionals. Those daughters who are taken to a chicken-packing factory are hardly likely to have their ambitions boosted. So, ironically, those with most to gain benefit the least and those girls who already have role models benefit the most.

Which begs the rather obvious question: if a new elite is being consolidated around professional dual-earning couples, is it really in the interests of equality to give daughters privileged access to the world of work and a first entry point to a new form of the old-school-tie networks? Won't this merely heighten inequality?

When high-income professional feminists, earning 10 or 20 times as much as cleaners or biscuit packers, bemoan the pay gap between men and women, it is hard not to conclude that tough political issues are being skirted around.

We need to ask ourselves if our goal is a fairer society, or simply a society in which women play as much of a role as men but in which inequality overall has increased.

For my money, the goal is the former. That is why we should be talking about taking young girls from council estates and sink schools into the professionals' world of work to raise their aspirations to new heights.

But is this likely ever to happen? The lives of many working women - especially career women - are pressurised. Time is short. Self-preservation, as well as self-interest, dictates that such altruism is unlikely to get off the ground. So if mutual aid fails, what role is left for politics? Why not make the rich pay higher taxes as a means of paying for better benefits, child care and a minimum wage - all of which would improve the daily lives of low-income women, and, indirectly, of men, too. But the political will to tackle inequality is lacking.

Who would have predicted that the presence of more women in the workforce would serve to perpetuate inequality? It is clearly unfair to blame the feminist pioneers for what is happening now. Each couple of steps forward in society always seems to involve one step back.

It is sad that International Women's Day has just been celebrated against the backdrop of growing inequality. I wish Ms Hurley every success in her new career. No doubt she and Mr Grant are laughing all the way to the bank. But let's spare a thought for the poor women who pack the make- up that will adorn Ms Hurley's face.