KEYWORDS: gender equality, labour, welfare, law, Britain, Portugal


The Elusiveness of Gender Equality at Work: The Failure of the New Political, Social, Economic and Legal Arrangements to Cope with the Ongoing Changes in the Family and Work Configuration in British and Portuguese Societies

Despite the significant advancement of women’s rights in the last century, a series of interlinked factors continue to make gender equality at work highly elusive. Politics occupy a major role in this bitter reality, as the ideological agenda promoted against the provision of a ”welfare state”, which is at the heart of equality at work, has placed working mothers in a very adversarial position. At the same time, post-industrial economic changes have evidently failed to cope with the dynamic progress of the British and Portuguese social order and the new family arrangements that arose, with women and people belonging to sexual minorities finding themselves significantly disadvantaged. The trend of liberalism characterising today’s economic environment has also inevitably influenced the legal framework regulating work relations and has unfortunately transformed employment law, which should have been the safety net for the working class, into an uneven battlefield favouring the employer at the expense of vulnerable workers, who are in their vast majority women.


Political Unwillingness for State-sponsored Caretaking Provisions 

Realising that gender equality is now a notion that exceeds the requirements of simply treating genders equally is vital in understanding the seriousness of the absence of welfare provisions for working women. As Nancy Fraser wisely argues, a more substantive kind of equality is needed which will include equality of capabilities1. This is a direct allusion to the failure of policymakers, applicable to both Britain and Portugal2 (pp.16-17), to take into account the important aspect of gender equality, which cultural feminism through Gilligan’s Heinz’s dilemma highlights; equality is not sameness3. Provision of state-sponsored care services would have partly solved the conflict between the increasing demands of today’s professional life, which requires absolute dedication and excessively long working hours4 (p.77), and the historically ongoing role of women as the primary provider of unpaid caretaking activities5. The failure by the state to do so6,7(p.11), however, only increases gender inequality at work. Indeed, career prospects remain largely dependent on androcentric criteria8 (p.176), ignoring the need for care provision, a role men are rarely expected to assume,9,10,11 (p.339-354), thus essentially nullifying any other provisions of equal opportunities that might exist.

The marked gender division of labour in the area of unpaid caretaking, however, should be treated as a personal choice which purely results from different aspirations between men and women, Hakim suggests12. In line with this approach, Baker implies that the absence of such welfare provisions should not, therefore, be seen as an accelerator of gender inequality, since there is a biological dimension to this inclination of women to opt for unpaid domestic labour13. These views are credible to some extent (theoretically at least), if one considers the breakthroughs that have taken place in relation to women’s rights14,15 and their relative liberalisation from anachronistic stereotypes16 (p.90-112), which now allows women to claim job positions at any level. This argument, however, would only be successful under the hypothetical assumption that, all else equal, caretaking still remained highly gendered based. In practice, therefore, this thesis cannot be sustained, as it blatantly ignores indisputable realities with regards to women’s working position, the most important one being unequal pay17,18 even for exactly the same job. As a consequence, and in the absence of political willingness to grant more welfare provisions to working mothers, it makes more financial sense for women than for their husbands to sacrifice their career prospects ‘, as the household income will remain higher. Espring Anderson’s classification of welfare states and their comparison confirms this gloomy reality. His study reveals that women under the social-democratic Nordic system, which is characterised by extensive universal welfare rights, are more likely to secure higher and better paid job positions as compared to women under the liberal Anglo-Saxon system, which leaves its citizens to seek their welfare in the market19 (p. 47, pp. 53-60). It is, therefore, safe to conclude that British and Portuguese women’s choice to reduce their working hours, often at the expense of higher positions20, is not primarily a conscious-driven one but a result of logical financial considerations which their state has failed to alleviate.


Inconsistency Between the Evolution of Social and Economic Trends Widens the Inequality Gap

Apart from the absence of a generous welfare system, which is also relevant as an exacerbatory factor in this analysis, women have seen their working positions significantly deteriorating as a result of the post-industrial socioeconomic realities21. As Moghadam argues, the increasing economic demands of the post-industrial era, which led to the collapse of the traditional male breadwinner model, are in stark contrast to the rise of the new social phenomenon of lone-parent families22 (pp. 4-8). The importance of this conclusion for our purposes lies in its indication that the sole-breadwinner model collapsed as a result of the insufficiency of one income to sustain a household,23 which glaringly reveals the vulnerability of lone parents24 (p. 356), 91% of them in Britain25 and 86.9% of them in Portugal26 being women. Work inequality between the two genders is therefore directly impacted, as the financial predicament of lone mothers reduces their bargaining power and makes them highly liable to exploitation27, forcing them to accept badly paid jobs as they neither have the power nor the luxury of time to negotiate better terms28. On the contrary, Weitzman claims that divorced fathers, absolved from the responsibility for caring for their children and free to pursue new opportunities, often manage to double their incomes29 (pp.320-325), which happens at the expense of lone mothers, thus further widening the already wide inequality gap.

The World Bank attempts to portray a more rosy picture of women’s situation in the post-industrial globalised world by claiming that globalisation and higher inter-state trade has resulted in a tremendous increase in job positions which are mostly filled by women,30 thus indicating that the goal of equality at work might be closer. It is indeed true that in Britain there has been an impressive increase in the employability of women, which has reach 71% of all eligible women compared to 42% before the 1950s31 (p.59). Likewise, in Portugal, a significantly high female employment rate has been observed which has drastically narrowed the gap between male and female employment32 (p.213). However, even if this ”feminization of workforce”33,34,35, as some scholars dubbed it, signals a positive development, it is premature to treat it as an achievement for gender equality at work, as the quality of the jobs occupied by women remain on average significantly inferior to those occupied by men36 (p.121-123). Tracing the roots of this phenomenon only intensifies the elusiveness of occupational equality, since it reveals an underlying tendency of undervaluing jobs and skills1 (p.602) associated with women. As Fudge points out, the majority of female-dominated occupations are precarious jobs accompanied by low wages37 (p.13) and poor working conditions38 (p.100). It therefore seems that equality of working conditions for the majority of women can only be attained if they are willing to compete for male-dominated positions. This, however, remains an unjust proposition and counter to work equality, because it essentially requires ”equality in a masculine mode”39 (p.4) rather than the appreciation of feminine attributes which would, in fact, be the only way to achieve a genuine occupational equality of genders.

This discrepancy between the valuation of male- and female-associated characteristics and skills, which Connel labelled ”hegemonic masculinity”40, has also victimised gay males at work41 and proves that social progress on issues such as gender, sexuality and family fluidity was not met with an equally progressive regime in the economic and employment sphere. As Drydakis’ World Bank sponsored report reveals, homosexual men in Britain earn 5% less than their male heterosexual peers of comparable education and skills42 (p.3) while, paradoxically, lesbian women earn 7% more than their heterosexual female colleagues42 (p.4). One interpretation is linked to the unpaid caretaking responsibilities that lesbian women forego, thus enabling them to intensively pursue higher paying jobs43. This proves problematic, though, as it fails to give an explanation for the antithetical trend of gay men’s pay and also ignores the existence of lesbian families. Instead, Waite and Denier point to hegemonic masculinity as the causal factor44 (pp.567-569) which rewards masculinity traits found in lesbians but at the same time discriminates against gay men for deviating from the optimised heterosexual male model45 (pp.335-336). These observations, therefore, despite their LGTBQ considerations, are directly relevant to gender equality at work, as they essentially affirm that women’s struggle for equality will remain uneven as long as society persists in demoting characteristics not conforming to ”heteromasculinity”46 expectations.


Legal Changes Have Increased Female Workers’ Vulnerability

The legal changes that have taken place in the last decades are admittedly the most favourable to the cause of gender equality at work compared to the other factors explored. There are indeed serious indications in light of landmark decisions at EU level, such as Defrenne (No.2)47, which recognised equality at work as a social right, that the realisation of gender equality is a realistic goal. Moreover, Zabalza sees British statutory provisions, such as the Sex discrimination Act48 and Equal Pay Act49, as positive contributions to this cause50 (pp.102-105). Also, the Portuguese legal system with laws such as ”Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women in Work, Employment and Vocational Training”51 and reforms of its labour code52 has admittedly improved women’s legal standing at their workplace53.

This is, of course, true only to the extent that it affects direct gender discrimination, which is a superficial solution to the problem of equality at work at large. It seems, according to Annesley, that the way employment law was allowed to develop in the name of ”freedom of contact”54 (p.188) has in fact negated all the other legal victories achieved for gender equality at European and domestic level55. This is clearly an allusion to the emergence of new types of employment relationships, such as ”zero contract hours” and ”agency worker”, which have stripped away most of workers’ rights and benefits54 (p.119-132) and are disproportionately applicable to women56 (p. 130). As the ILO affirms, the last two decades have been characterised by an increase in the precarious nature of work with a significant reduction of workers’ protection57; a phenomenon which, according to Fudge, is highly gendered37 (p.3). It is a fact that these new employment types are highly flexible and therefore, for the social reasons explored above, mainly appealing to women looking for part-time jobs. These are, however, highly insecure, as they neither provide redundancy compensation nor unfair dismissal protection57 (p.18-32), which are basic benefits enjoyed by ”traditional employees”57, who are mostly men56(p.143). This further widens the occupational equality chasm separating the two genders.

There is some optimism, though, among employment law experts58,59 that a re-evaluation by British courts of the injustice inflicted on workers under these contracts may improve certain social issues, including gender inequality. Indeed, the development of worker-friendly doctrines, such as ”mutuality of obligation”, and decisions such as Autoclenz60, which attempt to shield vulnerable workers by rejecting contractual terms that are inconsistent with real employment relations, can prove very helpful. It should be noted, however, that the recent decision by the British government to rise employment tribunal fees to exorbitant levels61 has dealt a deathblow to any such hope, as women, constituting the majority of vulnerable and poorly paid workers37 and thus in greater need of legal protection, have been the primary victims. TUC (Trade Union Congress) statistics have shown an 80% decrease in the number of women pursuing legal claims at employment tribunals since the hike in fees62, thus confirming the ominous reality of growing occupational inequality between the two genders.

Similarly, the relative institutional and legal improvements that have been made in the last decades in Portugal and which have prompted authors to praise its employment situation63, have been heavily offset by the effects of the financial crisis64. Unsurprisingly, and as Ferreira points out, the biggest victims of the crisis have been women due to the mostly precarious nature of their jobs32, which amply proves that the legal protection offered, even when slightly improved, is inadequate at times of economic downturns.

It is evident that British and Portuguese societies have still a long way to go before they genuinely achieve gender equality at work. This is by no means an easy endeavour, since progress in one of the areas explored above cannot yield substantial results if it happens independently of the rest. If gender equality at work is to be achieved, there has to be a mutual contribution by all relevant factors. Lack of political willingness to create a welfare state adaptable to the needs of working mothers not only thwarts their career prospects but also exacerbates the social phenomenon of poor and vulnerable lone mothers. Likewise, unfair post-industrial economic situations which undermine female contribution to the labour market can only be alleviated by a fairer application of employment law.. The key to all these problems, however, lies in the political sphere. It is only the political willingness of governments and a change in their ideologies that will initiate a domino-effect situation and propel an all-sided and consistent progress towards gender equality at work and in society at large.


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Author: Panayiotis Nikolaou
Release Date: 30 May 2017