Photocredit: Helen Zaltzman (with permission, @helenzaltzman)

The front page of Ms. Magazine this quarter sends a clear message.  I saw it thanks to a tweet by Helen Zaltzman (picture).  It is a message that the feminist movement, and particularly its hard-line wing, have been issuing for a long time.  It indicates a long-standing problem.

It was interesting for another reason, too.  The tweet was prescient as it came in the same week as Carrie Gracie’s resignation as the BBC’s China editor.  A number of sources have quoted her as saying words to the effect that she did not want to collude in a system that paid women less than their male counterparts for the same work.  Ms Gracie has made an extraordinary and commendable move.  It’s also a disappointment, though.  Why does someone senior have to resign to blow the whistle about activity that is, at least in legal theory, outlawed?  It’s 2017.  The equal pay act received Royal assent in 1970.

What’s also disappointing is how the self-sacrifice and the illegal nature of this are lost.  Yes, the issue has been raised and yes it remains annoying even for male feminists like me who want to see a meritocracy.  But it doesn’t stop there.  What about the problems that don’t have the opportunity for leverage like a high profile resignation and an open letter?   How can those problems be understood, and solved?

One of those problems comes from comparisons made in the pay gaps in different companies.  One that has been quoted is a pay gap between women and men at a budget airline.  I’ll call it SqueezyJet.  Sources differ on the percentage, but all quotes are well into double figures for the difference between men’s pay and women’s at SqueezyJet.  A bit of digging shows that the men and the women in the company are being compared to each other.  This seems reasonable you may say, but then we find out that the cockpit crew are (surprisingly) overwhelmingly male and the cabin crew are majority female.  Is it really a surprise that pilots and the people charged with passenger loading and unloading and schilling sandwiches are paid the same?  I don’t think so.  For me it is self-evident that women can be just as good at flying an aircraft as men.  The fact that piloting is male-dominated hints at a problem with skills or training or recruitment, not pay.  The real problem there has not only been missed but also conflated with something rather different. 

Another exaple involves a job where a pay difference is as good as impossible.  It is that of minimum wage jobs.  In the late 90s I was doing my A-levels.  I had a part time job, as did most of my friends.  We wanted to feel grown up and independent but also we wanted a few quid for alcohol, sweets, books, condoms and even petrol.  Two of my female friends worked at a local supermarket.  I’ll call it Osda to hide its identity.  Osda paid all its junior staff the minimum wage.  The minimum wage had just arrived in Britain and so this was seen as basically fine.  It seemed fair.  However, it quickly became apparent that the work they were doing was not quite so fair. 

The company would gather in enough junior staff or as many as they could and then apportion the jobs as they needed to on the day.  My 17-18 year old female contemporaries were put on the tills.  They didn’t really mind this to begin with—easy enough job, get to sit down, not cold in the winter, etc.  However, they never got to drive the fork lift when the new stock arrived.  That job always went to the same one or two people. The same one or two hairy, tubby, smelly men.  But why?  My friends had passed their driving test.  They were qualified.  They drove to work.  Why weren’t they driving the forklift once in a while?

These examples—and I have no doubt there are countless other specific examples that you’d never see reflected in pay statistics—show that the ‘wage gap’ is being used to refer to a multitude of problems, not just one in which the salary two people are paid for the same job.  It’s becoming a rather glib term. 

That’s not to say the problems are glib or unworthy of our attention.  They are not short-lived either.  A slightly reluctant Mariella Frostrup said on the Today programme that the same things were happening in the 1970s.  So these hidden problems are not even a new thing.  This suggests to me that the current tactics and approach we are using to tackle these iniquities—anger and protest—are not working.  The solution is partly a need for clarity about what the problems are, a need to inspire confidence and ambition, but also to focus on the intellectual case, and not anger.