Forty years on, women are still struggling
Four decades after the launch of an ambitious charter, only four of the 10 demands have been met. What went wrong?
The launch of the working women’s charter in 1974 was met with exhilaration, says Chris Coates. She remembers crowded conference halls and energetic meetings, and exciting plans to shape the lives of working women. The charter had been drawn up by trade unionists and those active in the women’s liberation movement, and was a list of 10 demands, including equal pay, equal access to education, free contraception and “readily available” abortion, and more women in positions of power in politics and public life.
Coates, a trade union activist, was at Congress House, the TUC headquarters, where the charter was presented to a packed conference room. “The idea was to then go and mobilise in local areas,” she says. “It was a real coming together [of different activist groups], which was probably the first time we tried to do that. I think that was the strength of the charter: trying to link up the ideas that had come out of women’s liberation with the organisational strength of the trade union. It was very exciting.”
As the journalist Geoffrey Sheridan noted, writing about the working women’s charter campaign in 1974 for the Guardian: “The demands would be quite unexceptionable to anyone who has been active in the women’s movement, yet what is crucial about the charter is that it links up women’s situation at work with their position at home and in the family. It bridges what trade unionists ordinarily regard as ‘economic’ issues with ‘social’ issues. For women especially, these issues are inextricably intertwined.”
Did Coates feel there could be lasting change? “It was a different time, anything seemed possible, and it seemed really possible that we could achieve all those things in a short space of time. I know part of that was the optimism of youth, but the strength of the trade union movement made a huge difference.”
Forty years on, that optimism seems almost quaint (the charter itself suffered a blow when it was rejected by the TUC a year after it launched). “When I looked through it, I was quite surprised,” says Pamela Cox, professor of history and sociology at the University of Essex, who helped organise a conference in London at the weekend to mark 40 years since its inception. “I think even those who were very aware of the challenges women faced would probably not have thought that in 40 years, things would be quite as challenging.”
Cox says only four of the 10 demands have been achieved. “We’ve seen real progress on equal access to education and training, and girls do very well at school and university. Equal legal rights is another area where we’ve seen change – women don’t need to ask their husbands’ permission for a mortgage, which was the kind of thing people in the 70s were fighting for.”
Reproductive rights are fairly ingrained, despite repeated challenges from anti-abortion campaigners. “One of their other demands was greater family allowances,” says Cox, “and although we’ve seen changes to that policy recently, support for working families is often better than it was in 1974.”
But that’s about it, she says. Demands for 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay? Women can take up to 52 weeks’ staututory leave, but are only paid 90% of their salary for the first six weeks, before dropping further. The charter’s wish for more women in public and political life? Only 23% of MPs and one in 10 council leaders are women. Just 8% of high court judges, 17% of FTSE 100 directors and 36% of senior civil servants are female. Their demand for equal pay? The gender pay gap widened between 2012 and 2013, and now stands at nearly 16%. Cox points to Asda, which is facing mass legal action by shopfloor employees, mainly female, who claim they were paid less than the male employees working in the supermarket’s warehouse jobs.
The 1974 charter came six years after the victory of the women at the Dagenham car plant, who had been paid less than men doing equivalent jobs, and which gave rise to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Why, more than 40 years on, are women still having these struggles? “It’s partly that we’ve still got a gender-segregated labour market, with men and women grouped into particular kind of jobs, particularly at the lower end,” says Cox. “That helps to explain why the warehouse men of Asda get paid more than the women on the shopfloor, even though they are doing comparable work.”
Sarah Veale, head of the equality and employment rights department at the TUC, says workers have become “very much individualised – women don’t know what other people are being paid and they often don’t realise that they are being unlawfully paid less than a man doing an equivalent job. You need something in law to oblige all employers to report every year on what their pay systems are.”
The charter was careful to note that in bringing women’s pay in line with men’s, they shouldn’t allow men’s working conditions to be lowered. In any case, Cox says, the biggest problems now are zero-hours contracts and below living-wage pay. Many of the changes in work culture have had poor consequences for women, says Veale. “You’ll hear employers arguing that the only way the economy is apparently reviving is because they are able to be flexible, and flexibility is a wonderful thing, particularly for women, so they can collect their children from school. Although yes, that is the case, they’re not being paid while they’re doing that. A lot of women on zero-hours contracts and precarious arrangements don’t want to have periods of employment time when they’re not being paid, and arrangements that are so flexible that they don’t have the faintest idea when they’re going to be needed and for how long.”
Balancing work life with family is a crucial area where women particularly still suffer, says Cox. The 1974 charter called for free and flexible childcare, “and we’re nowhere near that. The cost of childcare is astronomical and that is one of the biggest issues facing mothers.” Others are taking note – on Monday, the CBI, the business lobby group not known for its radical feminist credentials, called on the government to extend free childcare for three- and four-year-olds to younger children.
The other big issue for working mothers is job security and promotion, says Cox. “There are plenty of professional women I know who find themselves eased out when they have children, jobs reassigned, confidentiality agreements signed.”At the anniversary conference, a new charter – including demands to end zero-hour contracts and transparency in companies’ pay structures – was drawn up.
How great it would be, says Cox, if this new charter were taken up by a wide range of women, galvanising younger feminists in much the same way that the original did. “That will be the key to scoring more than four out of 10 in the next 40 years.”