The position of women is often considered to have improved during the last few decades. There is, however, considerable debate as to the extent of change and the reasons for it. This essay will look at how women’s lives have changed in terms of employment, pay, education, household, sexuality and the state. I will conclude that the most important changes for women are in education, but that the basic pattern of inequality remains in most aspects of the social structure, from paid work to the household divisions of labour, from sexuality to violence.
Ann Oakley (1981) has traced the changing status of women in British society from the eve of the Industrial Revolution to the 1970s. She claims that ‘the most important and enduring consequence of industrialization for women has been the emergence of the modern role of housewife as ‘the dominant mature feminine role’ Thus a combination of factors which included ideology, the banning of child labour, and restrictions of the employment of women, locked the majority of married women into the mother housewife role. This led to the idea of a ‘cornflake packet family’ where the male was the breadwinner, the wife was the housewife, and the family consisted of two children – a boy and a girl.
The mother had an expressive role, while the father had an instrumental role of going out to work. The inequality, and the extent to which the different aspects of this are interconnected, mean that is some use the concept of patriarchy to describe this set of social relations. Patriarchy is a social system through which men dominate, exploit and oppress women. However, in recent decades, changes in the economy and society have altered the situation – several of these changes will be outlined below.
One of the most important areas to look at for the changes in women’s lives is in terms of pay and employment relative to men. Women are less likely than men to be in paid employment, but the gap has closed steadily over recent decades. The proportion of those in employment who are women rose from 38.1% in 1971 to 49.6% in 1995. However, most of the increase in women’s employment has been in part time work. The proportion of women working part time has increased steadily, from 34% in 1971 to 47% in 1995.
Women workers are concentrated within a very narrow range of occupational groups, although there have been some significant changes in this recently. Over 40% of full time women workers are to be found in clerical employment. In contrast, men are spread through a much wider range of occupations. Women are confined both to lower grade jobs (vertical segregations) and to different jobs (horizontal segregation). The pattern of segregation however has changed significantly over recent years. At the top end of the hierarchy the number and proportion of women in the managerial and professional grades have substantially increased. However, in the most powerful positions in public life, women continue to be seriously under-represented. Walby notes that in 1992 only 9.2 per cent of MPs were women, there were no women Chief Constables until the 1990s, and in 1994 only one in 25 High Court judges was a woman. In 1996, there was only one woman among 50 British ambassadors or heads of overseas missions.
Linda McDowell uses the theory of post-Fordism to understand changes in the labour market. This theory argues that businesses have moved away from mass production towards the flexible production of small batches of specialized products. In doing so, they employ a core of highly skilled workers who are capable of using their skills to produce a wide variety of products. Other work is carried out by part-time workers, or workers on short-term contracts, or is contracted out to other firms.
McDowell argues that these changes are reflected in the increased use of part-time female labour and the reduction in the employment of males in full-time permanent jobs. But while it is clearly important to take account of changes in the labour market and the economy as a whole in order to understand the changing patterns of gender inequality, it is necessary to be cautious about basing an analysis on the theory of post foridsm. This theory has been heavily criticized on a number of grounds, and the work of Lovering and others suggests that post Fordism cannot be seen as a general trend that has affected all employers.
A different explanation for the changing nature and pattern of women’s employment in countries such as Scandinavia has been the shift to state policy. Talcott Parsons had proposed a functionalist explanation of women’s disadvantaged position in the labour market, which focused on the impact of the household. He argued that men get paid more because women’s domestic responsibilities adversely affect their involvement in paid work. However, in Scandinavia, there is a much greater public provision of childcare together with higher rates of female employment and a smaller wages gap between women and men. Thus changes to state policy can improve the nature and pattern of women’s employment.
But has there been any change in women’s pay relative to men’s? The implementation of the Equal Pay Act between 1970 and 1975 reduced the wages gap a little. In 1970 women earned only 63% on men’s hourly rates, and only 55% of men’s gross weekly pay. In 1997, women working full time earned 81% of men’s hourly rate, but those women working part time only earned 59% of men’s hourly rates. Thus the size of the gap has been closing steadily for those working full time, but not for those working part time.
It does seem therefore that the position of women in employment has transformed itself in recent years, though there remains considerable inequality and the picture is not one of simple progress.
One area where there have been considerable changes for women’s lives has been in education. Education has seen a transformation of the position of girls and young women. In schools, not only has the traditional gender gap in examination performance been closed but girls have overtaken boys; while in higher education the gender gap is closing steadily. One reason for the change is the discrimination against women in education was made illegal in the 1875 Sex Discrimination Act. A further reason was the increase in the opportunities for women in the world after education as the labour market gradually opened up. These changes in education have potential implications for other aspects of gender relations – since access to good jobs as some relationship to educational qualifications, women might anticipate taking a higher proportion of top jobs. It may also have an impact on wages, in so far as lack of qualifications, rather than discrimination, was a reason for women’s poor rates of pay. However, while girls are learning in new areas, boys are not learning those subjects traditionally learned by women eg at present, only 15% of all boys do home economics.
A further important issue to look at when considering the changing lives of women, is in the area of the household. The most striking change is the increased likelihood of families being formed of only mothers and children, which reflects to a large degree the large increase in divorce rates. The number of lone parents increased from 8% in 1981 to 21% in 1996, and the vast majority of these are women. One of the most significant features of one-parent families is their tendency to live in poverty, leading to many forms of social exclusion. The poverty largely results from the lack of a male income into the household, but is compounded by the lower propensity of lone mothers to be in employment as compared with married mothers.
Changes in the welfare state are also important in that they have disproportionately affected women because more of them head single parent households and more live to pensionable age. Women in old age are thus particularly vulnerable to the risk of poverty. A further change in the household has been in attitudes towards housework. Men are now more likely to accept that women should not be responsible for all the housework. However, it does seem that while there has been a change in attitudes, this is not to a great degree played out in action. The UK is in contrast to some countries such as Sweden where there is more shared parenting and childcare is part of education for boys and girls.
Changes in sexuality have been a further impact upon women’s lives. Giddens argued that there has been a ‘transformation of intimacy’ in recent years. It is widely suggested that women have made great advance towards equality with men in the area of sexuality. The sexual double standard, whereby non-marital sex was acceptable for men and not for women has reduced. Other changes include the much greater availability of contraception and safe abortion, which has made unwanted children much less likely. Furthermore, there has been greater acceptance of a wider range of sexual practices, such as gay and lesbian relationships.
Feminist movements have also helped to change and shape women’s lives. The 1970s was the second wave of feminism in the twentieth century, the early one being instrumental in winning political citizenship for women. Many of the feminist ideas of the 1970s which had been considered outrageously radical when first expressed are now widely accepted. For instance, male violence is now recognized as a significant problem and the subject of serious discussion by the police as well as feminists. Equal pay is also an early feminist demand now accepted into mainstream policy initiatives such as Opportunity 2000.
In Gender Transformations(1997), Walby reviews changes in patriarchy in the 1990s. Although she discovers plenty of evidence that patriarchal structures remain in place in Britain, she also finds evidence of important changes. In particular, she claims that there is evidence of a generational difference between older and younger women. Older women tend to be restricted by the constrains of private patriarchy, which was the dominant form of patriarchy in their early lives. They are likely to have few qualifications and therefore have limited opportunities in the labour market. Younger women, on the other hand, have benefited from some of the changes that have taken place. They are likely to benefit from increased qualifications and improved labour market opportunities. Walby thus points to polarization between the younger and older women, while convergence between younger women and men.
In conclusion, there have been many changes in the transition to modernity, which have shaped women’s lives. While some of these changes have reduced gender inequality n recent years, especially in the field of education, the basic pattern of inequality remains in most aspects of the social structure, from paid work to the household divisions of labour, from sexuality to violence. This essay has pointed to many changes in women’s lives, but whether their lives have improved has been a matter of debate: Liberal feminists tend to see these changes as progress, while radical feminists tend to argue that little has changed and patriarchal domination remains firmly intact. Marxists usually claim that industrialization and the advent of capitalism led to a deterioration in the position of women and since the Industrial Revolution little has improved.
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