In April 2006 figures for Northern Ireland show that the median annual earnings of full time working women are still 11% less than men. One of the main reasons why women are paid so much less than men is that they are overwhelmingly segregated in a narrow range of low-paid jobs such as retail, catering, cleaning and caring professions.
Women are not only over-represented in low paid jobs, 40% of working women are working part time against only 6% of men. Most of these jobs are an extension of work which women have traditionally carried out unpaid at home. The ideology of women’s second-class status – which has its roots in the development of class society thousands of years ago – has been adopted and adapted by capitalism to maintain its profits and its rule.
With a massive downturn in consumer spending across the world today it’s exactly these hospitality and retail jobs which will be lost. Women in the public sector aren’t safe either as the government cuts their wages and prepares for massive cuts in health, education and other public services.
In Northern Ireland, £700 million cuts in health have been agreed by the Assembly, with thousands of jobs losses as a result. The closure of residential care homes will leave hundreds of families stranded. Many elderly people will have no other choice than to move in with their children’s families, with the woman in the household caring for them. In Southern Ireland childcare for 0-3 year olds takes up 30% of the disposable income of the average double income family – the EU average is 8%!
When one parent is faced with a cut in pay or working hours, childcare will be eliminated as a realistic option for many. It will be mainly women who will have to stay at home to look after the kids. It is clear that working class families will be made to pay for the crisis of the bosses’ and the banker’s capitalist system. This will undoubtedly create and/or increase tensions in personal relationships and will make more women vulnerable to domestic violence. 70% of Irish women who reported being victim of domestic violence cited economic independence as the reason they did not leave. Women refuse shelters and rape crisis centres are already seriously underfunded. Women’s Aid can only answer 1 out of 2 calls because of lack of resources.
The development of public services was fought for by working class women and men. But like every concession we win from the ruling class, this is never permanent and the capitalist class will seize every opportunity to attack our rights and gains. These attacks will have to be resisted. Unfortunately the dominant ideology of the last ten to fifteen years promoted individual solutions to the problems that women (and others) face in society. A collective struggle is needed. Such a struggle cannot separate material from cultural oppression. Ideology plays a crucial role in legitimising, reinforcing and perpetuating the material inequalities which women experience. In times of economic recession it suits the ruling class to have women carrying out unpaid labour in the isolation of their homes instead of carrying out that work as part of an organised, paid workforce.
Reactionary ideas such as “a woman’s place is in the home” will be promoted alongside sexist images. Images which objectify women both reflect and reinforce deep-rooted ideas about women’s “inferiority” and second-class position in society. As such they serve to strengthen and maintain material inequalities such as unequal and low pay. Sexism is also divisive. It creates obstacles to forging unity between working class men and women which is so essential in the struggle for the economic and material changes which are needed to transform women’s lives.
Historically, when women have become involved in action over issues such as pay and working conditions, they have also gained the confidence to challenge wider issues which affect them as women as well as workers. The collective struggle of working class people against the failed system of capitalism is the only way women will be liberated from oppression and exploitation.