Feminism for the few

Ella Whelan reviews Women vs Capitalism by Vicky Pryce


Many feminists and commentators have cheered the BBC’s Samira Ahmed, who recently won her equal pay case after claiming the corporation discriminated against her by paying her a sixth of the fee for presenting Newswatch  than Jeremy Vine received for fronting the similar Points of View.

Women vs Capitalism: Why we can’t have it all in a free market economy By Vicky Pryce, C.Hurst, £14.99

I’ve never been convinced that women on huge salaries attempting to attach another zero to their payslips in the name of equality would change the lives of the women I know. Pay disputes for top journalists are hardly the stuff of the Dagenham sewing machinists of 1968 or the strikers in saris 10 years later in London’s Grunwick dispute.

Perhaps that’s why the gender pay gap has never excited me. It’s hard to relate to stats filled with acronyms about the wage disparity between CEOs, how many women have MBEs or which VPs are using quotas. And its why the argument for financial feminism, and talk of smashing the glass ceiling in the FTSE 100, has always left me cold.

But despite my lack of enthusiasm, the pay gap has become something of an national obsession. Equal Pay Day is annually celebrated (or mourned) by feminist organisations as the day that women “effectively stop getting paid”. Based on ONS figures of average or median pay and a few cherry-picked examples of bosses stuck in the 1950s, the consensus is that women at work are not treated the same as men.

Critics of pay-gapomania, however, argue that the picture is more complicated than it sounds. Pay discrimination on the basis of sex has been illegal for decades, and women in their twenties and thirties are outearning men of a similar age. And anyway, since when did equality become something that capitalism was concerned with? In a system which works on the basis of exploitation, doesn’t someone always have to lose out?

Enter Vicky Pryce, economist, author and feminist. Her latest book, Women vs Capitalism: Why we can’t have it all in a free market economy, makes the case for “radical changes to contemporary capitalism” to achieve “equality for women”. Rather than prioritising #MeToo, body image, period stigma or other contemporary feminist campaigns, Pryce insists that economic independence and financial equality are the only means through which women can be equal.

In four parts, Pryce argues that the current state of women under capitalism is dire, and suggests a “socialised capitalism” in which policies, quotas, positive discrimination and naming and shaming will create financial equality for women.

Women vs Capitalism fires stats at you like a machine gun, and Pryce’s withering Greek humour is evident in the unforgiving way she expects you to keep up with the avalanche of examples she provides. But one thing becomes clear quite quickly — this book is all about women at the top. Fair enough, Pryce herself is a woman at the top, having been a director-general, a senior managing director, a head of this, a co-founder of that, an author, a professor and many other things. But this book about capitalism is predominantly asking the reader to feel for the suffering of the banker, the (inevitably always successful) entrepreneur and even EU bigwigs.

Pryce’s chapter on “bias” gives some revealing examples of women she expects us to be inspired by or feel sympathy for. Christine Lagarde, the former managing director of the IMF and newly-appointed president of the European Central Bank (ECB), is mentioned throughout the book as a “beacon of women’s leadership”. This is the same Lagarde who was caught approving a huge payout of taxpayers’ money to a controversial French businessman in 2016 and was widely mocked for being suited to a top job at the ECB because of her experience with cronyism.

There is not one voice in this book from someone who isn’t likely to own an Armani suit

Fifty pages later, while discussing “glass cliff” theory (when a woman takes a job that is doomed to fail), we’re asked to shed a tear for none other than failed ex-prime minister Theresa May — given the fact that May had taken the “glass cliff” job of implementing Brexit, “she could only slide downwards”. Pryce, like other feminists, is so convinced of the prevalence of sexism in the workplace that even corrupt technocrats and useless politicians should get treated differently because they are women. The girls’ group of business feminism protects even the most odious members of the elite.

There is not one voice in this book from someone who isn’t likely to own an Armani suit. A cursory mention of Dawn Foster’s book Lean Out (which criticised Sheryl Sandberg’s business feminism) makes an obligatory and rather bashful appearance in the later chapters, but otherwise Pryce clearly intends Women vs Capitalism as a handbook for feminist professionals. She might be right, that women can’t have it all in a free market economy, but clearly only the upper echelons of female society can have “it” or anything like it, under her new programme of interventionist plans.

The reason this is such a shame is because Pryce is able to expertly uncover the one reason why women do get treated differently in the workplace: motherhood. Though she focuses on it with her forensic lens and attention to detail in the second chapter, Pryce returns to the issue of motherhood throughout the book: it’s the answer to every question. Why aren’t there more CEOs in fashion? Because they’ve all had to take time off to have kids. Why are senior female bank managers not being paid the same as men? Because they’ve taken part-time work to be able to pick the kids up from school.

As Pryce points out, “When women first enter the UK labour force, the gender pay gap is virtually non-existent.” But this all changes when kids arrive because “the direct parenting burden falls disproportionately on women” and so “motherhood acts as a barrier to equal access to paid work and pay progression”. This is a tricky subject to deal with: no one forces women to go to work or to have children; it’s technically a free choice. And as Pryce uses Marx in the book (albeit through gritted teeth), I will too.

Women might make choices when it comes to work and childcare, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. Social norms and pressure (much of it coming from quasi-feminist campaigns about breastfeeding and earth mothers) on women to be the primary caregivers for children and ageing parents means being unable to attack the working world with the same freedom and dedication as their male counterparts. Pryce argues for a “free or heavily subsidised childcare/early education system”, which would immediately enable women and men from all walks of life to make free decisions about how to organise their work-life balance.

Being the hard-nosed capitalist she is, Pryce argues this will be beneficial for profit: more women in work means more cash in the pockets of bosses. She calls the inability of capitalism to use the female workforce properly a “market failure”.

But the free reproduction of the workforce (through housework, feeding families, etc) is exactly what capitalism needs to keep going: this isn’t a market failure but a central tenet of the capitalist system. What I’m more interested in is enabling struggling single mothers and women on low-waged work to be free to have time and space to decide what kind of work they’d like to do, rather than what fits in to their crippling schedule of childcare needs and zero-hours contracts.

Free, 24-hour, unconditional and high-quality state-provided childcare would dramatically and instantly change the remaining equality imbalance between men and women by ruling out the need for one half of the family to pick up the lion’s share of unpaid work. Unfortunately, rather than making this case, Pryce muddies this brilliant (and relatively controversial) idea in solutions like gender quotas, policies to combat sexist working hours, an end to “presenteeism” and an increase in women in high-power positions.

But what Pryce and almost all other professional feminists don’t understand is that working-class women (that is, the majority of us) find no solace, no inspiration, no power in watching middle- and upper-class women succeed simply because we share chromosomes.

I have more in common with the boys that lived in the flat below me on the estate where I grew up than I ever will with the Christine Lagardes or Ursula Von Der Leyens of this world. This is the point that Pryce is blissfully ignoring: in the war of women vs capitalism, middle-class women will always come out smelling of roses. It’s another “w” — workers — vs capitalism that I’m interested in. But perhaps that’s for another day.

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