Scoop Review of Books

Q&A: Prue Hyman on ‘Hopes Dashed?’

Q & A | BWB Texts
For Scoop Review of Books, Alison McCulloch interviewed Prue Hyman about her new book, part of the BWB Texts series, Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality


bwb7760_text_cover_hopesdashed_highresSRB: Can you start by giving me a brief biography, with respect to your background in gender inequality issues?

Prue: I taught feminist economics and economics generally, but specialising in feminist economics, where I could, at Victoria University for many years. I worked for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs for two years on secondment. That, obviously gave me a background in feminist economics and on a couple of sabbaticals, I worked with people who were working in the field and just gradually read and wrote about it myself.

SRB:    So how did this book come about now?

Prue:    Bridget Williams did a book edited by Max Rashbrooke, called “Inequality” (click here for the SRB review) and it had very little gender stuff in it to my surprise, because it’s still one of the major aspects of inequality. And she got me to have a look at the small amount there was in there, and I said it was all right as far as it went, but it wasn’t detailed enough. Bridget Williams published my earlier book in 1994, “Women in Economics: A New Zealand Feminist Perspective,” and we agreed I’d do an update essentially for the Texts series.

SRB:    Early in the book, you briefly mention the state of feminism today and have some positive things to say, including about the commitment of many younger women and the diverse issues they’re active in, including rape culture, body image, unionism, anti-racism and more. But I wonder, given your focus on gender inequality, do you distinguish among the kinds of feminism? In particular, between, for example, so-called “choice feminism” or “neoliberal feminism”, which is perhaps less focused on women as an oppressed class than on women’s individual identities and choices?

Prue:    To me “choice feminism” or “neoliberal feminism” is almost a contradiction in terms. I think it’s an abuse of the term feminism and I think it’s unfortunate that some modern women who get prominence, that that’s all they mean by feminism, because to me, feminism is about women as a class, and not only about women as a class — I must use a broad term, but it can’t be a feminism of the type I’m writing about and keen on without also dealing with the intersections, i.e. race and class and disability and all the rest. At times, I think, ‘well, I’m less concerned with all women than I used to be.’ It’s really the women who are most disadvantaged by other facets that I care about most.

SRB:    Do you think that so-called “liberal feminism” has done any harm towards efforts toward gender equality around economics, around wealth, and pay, and so on?

Prue:    Well, liberal feminism to me is different from choice feminism. Liberal feminism is coming third along the spectrum, if you like, towards my sort of feminism. It’s not radical enough, but it’s raised awareness of gender issues and it’s certainly done good for some women. Again, it’s a continuum, and liberal feminism does at least get your attention to the problems that are preventing women from having equal opportunity with men, even if it doesn’t go as far as equal outcomes, perhaps. But things like the neglect of unpaid work is certainly stressed by many liberal feminists, and that’s something that’s still very important on the agenda of all feminists.

SRB:    Your book focuses on paid and unpaid work and you point out that, “If we genuinely valued the work of caring for children, the elderly, and other dependent people, paid and unpaid work would be more evenly spread, especially between men and women.” You also note that paid work confers much more social status than unpaid work, even though the dividing line between them is quite arbitrary. So this raises the question of how to properly value this work. There seems to be, and you acknowledge this, a tension here between wanting to better value unpaid work and not wanting to reinforce the very system that devalues it by simply attaching a monetary value to it. Can you speak to how we should be valuing this work, and to that tension?

Prue:    That’ a very difficult question and raises all the major issues. I think one option is a Universal Basic Income. But it would have to be generous enough that it was not a poverty income. One of the arguments for it is that it would value all the unpaid work and it’s not only household and caring work, it’s the volunteer work in the community as well. Which again, women do more than half, and so do people over 65. The over 65’s, of course, have a Universal Basic Income at the moment, and probably a pretty generous one. Although there is some poverty in over 65’s if they don’t own their home, but there isn’t a lot. The over 65’s are treated much better than families who have young children. So a UBI that generally extended to everybody would be one way of doing it, but it’s not a simple solution and it’s not cheap, but it needs exploring. I don’t think we do nearly enough fundamental thinking about the whole system. We just tinker with it.

SRB:    Is there any way in which putting a monetary value on unpaid or voluntary work would actually devalue it or diminish its meaningfulness to people?

Prue:    The problem with it is partly that and partly that it’s usually valued too low. The attempts that have been made have used very low hourly rates of pay to value the work, which means that it’s undervalued, as indeed much of women’s paid work at the bottom is. So that’s the first problem. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs did a consultation on it at one stage and there were certainly some women that were almost insulted by the idea of putting a value on it. You know, they say, ‘It’s a labour of love’ — they don’t necessarily think of it as unpaid work, although I think it’s important to think of it that way as well. And I don’t think it’s disrespectful to put a value on it, but there is that feeling about it.

There’s also the concern you’re almost leading to wages for housework, which was a proposal way back. While that concept is very reasonable from some points of view, there are worries about then do you start policing it and punishing you if you’re not doing it properly, and so on. It’s not straightforward.

SRB:    Does gender inequality of the kind you’re talking about feed into the kind of societal inequality that was discussed in Max Rashbrooke’s book? And if it does, how does that square with the fact that we seem to be becoming more unequal at the same time as there have been some gains in gender equality?

Prue:    We’re only getting more gender equal, it seems to me, to the extent that women are getting more education and going up the ladder. That’s clearly happening, although not right to the top. It’s only the top inequality that places like governments seem to be the least bit interested in. More women on boards and stuff. Whereas my 50 percent nightmare — which is probably a reflection of your question in a way — is that you get 50 percent of women everywhere and we’re still a lousy unequal society by race and class and so on. I hope that wouldn’t happen. I hope if you got a head of steam of that extent, of general equality, the sort of women that you get to the top would not just be the Maggie Thatchers of the world and that you would start to change society more fundamentally. But we don’t really know, because that hasn’t happened anywhere. Maybe Iceland’s the nearest.

So getting more gender equal can lead to better outcomes generally, and may not. I think the verdict’s still out on that, but don’t forget that with the race and class inequality, it’s often women who bear the brunt of it, who’ve got to try to make ends meet in households that simply don’t have enough who are the butt of violence when things are impossible as well. So, it’s not as straightforward as all that.

SRB:    On the ethnic differentials, you point out the extent to which Māori and Pacific workers, like women, consistently earn less than on average than their Pākehā counterparts. You say at one point, in terms of average salary in the public sector, where we have still got statistics, that this gap was around 19.6% in 2014, compared with a gender gap last year of 13.5%. So why focus on particular on the gender wage gap and not, say, on the ethnic wage gap? Is there something more fundamental about it?

Prue:    I suppose I know far more about gender issues. I’ve been dealing with them for years and I certainly want to pay attention to the others but I don’t claim myself to be an expert on ethnic differentials. I think it’s delicate for Pākehā women to be doing too much I think in that area. I certainly want to support people who are working in the area. The sort of jobs that Māori and Pacific women particularly do — it goes all the way down — they don’t have as much access to education, which is very Pākehā-based, and they come from families where they might have to go out to work earlier, so they don’t get the same sort of education. So they tend to end up in the sort of jobs that are devalued because they’re regarded as natural to women or whatever, and probably there’s a similar thing in terms of Pākehā- and Maori-dominated work being undervalued.

SRB:    So, a question about that ‘natural to women’ point that you mentioned. Can you talk about the question of whether female-dominated jobs are lower paid because females dominate them or do females dominate in those jobs because they’re low paid?

Prue:    I think it’s a bit of both, almost inevitably. I mean, for example, the Kristine Bartlett case, the caring work, that’s obviously been seen as ‘natural to women’ for a long time because it’s allied to the caring work in the household. And which comes first is a difficult one, but men have tended to be the big decision makers, and the myth that the market determines pay, and any differentials in pay seem to me to be largely a myth. Power is absolutely critical to how pay is determined, and you take something like caring work where it’s mainly women — there are quite a few men as well, but they tend mostly to be Māori, Pacific and migrants — and they had few other options, and also maybe less prejudiced against doing such work. Government, of course, has a large part in setting the pay because of the funding for rest homes and so on is determined. Places like Terranova and the other aid care homes, they agree that women are worth more but they can’t pay more unless they get more funding from government. So it comes back to that again, and indeed, it’s community responsibility because we pay the taxes, we’ve got to demand that pay increases and be prepared to pay for it through our tax system. Not necessarily the current tax system, and this is why everything’s interlinked: We need capital gain taxes and wealth taxes and inheritance taxes to reduce the inequality that gets carried on from one generation to the next.

SRB:    Have there ever been any cases where women have come to dominate a previously high paying male-dominated career and then the pay has gone down?

Prue:    Yes, there’s certainly evidence of ‘tipping’. Even clerical and typing started off as a male job and ‘tipped’ and then was less valued. There’s things like pharmacy, retail pharmacy. And it’s interesting, in the Soviet Union, doctors were female-dominated much earlier than the increase in female doctors here, and they’re much less well paid there comparative to others than is case in the Western World. So there’s certainly evidence of ‘tipping’.

SRB:    In discussing the success of other ways than an ‘equal employment opportunities’ approach, you note that orthodox economists tend to see gender gaps as “a result of individual and household choices with little or no intervention in market-determined outcomes being needed to narrow them”. And you argue that much more radical interventions are needed to avoid what you describe, and have already mentioned, as your personal nightmare: The 50% where women occupy half of the jobs at all levels but nothing else has changed. Race and class inequality are unaffected, for example. You have mentioned some tax issues. Can you tell me what those radical interventions should be, if you haven’t already covered them?

Prue:    I was taking about the minimal intervention school and the greater intervention, so the standard stuff about pay equity I think is absolutely critical. That’s being pursued at the moment, but I’m not terribly optimistic about the Kristine Bartlett case leading to revolutionary changes in pay of that work, the way that the government has stepped in with the working parties and is now talking about changing the legislation, I’m very suspicious. But nevertheless, there is supposed to be an offer coming in the Kristine Bartlett case. I suspect it won’t be enough. We’ve got people being paid not much more than the minimum wage, around $16, and there’s something like $21 dollars or so for equivalent work in the public sector. And I suspect the offer will be somewhere around there, which is still not pay equity because it’s pay parity between private and public, but it’s not full pay equity. Who knows what that would be like, it could be $25 or $26 dollars an hour, at least.

SRB:    By pay equity, you’re referring to equal pay for work of equal value?

Prue:    Yes. There are perfectly good job evaluation schemes, I know some people are afraid of those because they can be abused as well and need time and money and attention in dealing with them. But it’s the time to change structures and it’s about the only semi-objective way of fixing pay. There’s no totally objective way, but it’s more objective than the current way that its fixed at the moment, and of course, employers use them all the time for their own purposes, often with gender biases. Make sure you get rid of those in the system. But I mean, that’s the start.

As far as I’m concerned, I want huge radical change. I want labour market differentials to be vastly reduced. I think it’s ridiculous that top CEOs are paid in the millions, and I don’t think that productivity differences justify anything like the sort of differentials that you’ve got at the moment. Productivity measurement’s very difficult anyway, and people at the top depend on the people under them. On the more radical days, you’d like everyone to be paid the same hourly rate, as the time dollar schemes do. That’d probably be going a bit far even for me because you’ve got some jobs that do demand more lengthy education and training so you can’t have probably the same hourly rate. But you could reduce it to a maximum differential of say five- or ten-to-one rather than the thousands and thousands-to-one we have now.

If you’re looking for radical solutions, there’s mine. I’m not saying it’s a realistic one in the current climate, but what is?

SRB:    So do you think that pay equity in its fullest sense can be achieved under capitalism?

Prue:    I think it’s pretty doubtful because no one’s managed it as yet, as far as I can tell. There have been attempts and there have been some gains within more or less capitalist systems, but not major gains. What I’d really like is a revolution that got rid of capitalism as well. You can make some gains under a relatively capitalist system but I think there’s capitalism and capitalism.

SRB:    Something that surprised me in your book you write that, “Evidence shows the greater the extent of collective and centralised bargaining, the narrower the gender wage gaps and the higher the minimum wage”. And yet, you also point out that with the reduction in unionisation here since 1991 Employment Contracts Act, the gender pay gap has not widened. Why has that not happened?

Prue:    Simply because women are going up the system — getting educated and going into better jobs and getting out of the labour force for shorter periods while they have their kids and so on. So the human capital side has increased and that’s narrowed the gap, while at the same time the trends about collective bargaining and so on would have widened them. And we also do have some protections through the minimum wage. That’s why I fight for the general policies — the minimum wage, the living wage — just as hard as for the specific gender pay equity policies. Because it seems to me that the general policies have wider influence than the specific things that are attempting to address the gender gap.

SRB:    So those are all the questions I had. Are there any other points or comments that you’d like to make? I know there’s a lot in the book, and I saw by your acknowledgments that you would to have liked to have written more.

Prue:    Certainly my first draft had rather more on the links between feminist economics and all the other issues. I touched on international feminism, for a start. It seems to me that things are less bad in New Zealand in many ways than certainly in the developing world. And I think, international and youthful feminism is where the future has to lie. Although it has to be the right sort. It has to be for the younger women and the people in specific countries to work on their own issues and to name them. But obviously I have my own views on what those should be.

And beyond specifically gender issues, all the other issues about capitalism: the appalling way in which post-global financial crisis, the system just simply attempts to fight off any critiques and just goes back to business as usual; the fact that only lip-service is paid to remedies for global warming. I think all these things link together, but I didn’t have the room to do more than just touch on all that.