February 6, 2018, marked the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which enfranchised (some) women in Britain for the first time – a reward for women’s work during World War I. In honor of this historic event, statues of two leaders in the struggle for women’s suffrage, Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst, are to be erected in British cities.
The economic emancipation of women had to wait till after World War II, when permanent male labor shortages – the result, incidentally, of Keynesian full-employment policies – pulled ever more women out of domesticity and into factories and shops. This second wave of emancipation concentrated on economic inequalities, especially discrimination in job selection and disparities in pay and property rights.
These battles have also mainly been won. Discrimination in inheritance is long gone, and equal pay for equal work is accepted in theory, though a gender bias persists (as it does for selection to senior posts). For example, Carrie Gracie recently resigned as the BBC’s China editor in protest against unequal pay between male and female editors, shaming six top male employees to agree to substantial wage cuts.
It is only a matter of time – of overcoming habit, prejudice, and inertia – before what is accepted in principle becomes practice. The most interesting remaining argument for unequal treatment relates to activities for which there is a premium on physical qualities, as in sport. In traditional societies, men did the fighting, because they were stronger, faster, and taller. Not surprisingly, one of the last remaining bastions of unequal pay today is in competitive sport, which is a ritualized form of warfare.
In most major sports, there are separate men’s and women’s teams and events, with lower standards of performance expected of women. For example, men’s tennis matches often comprise up to five sets, compared to three for women. The best men can beat the best women because they are stronger, hit the ball harder, and have more stamina. In swimming, the longest race for men is 1,500 meters, while for women it is 800 meters. One sport in which women compete equally with men is equestrianism – not just racing, but also dressage, show jumping, and three-day eventing.
The question is whether pay ought to be equal in an area in which performance is unequal “by nature.” In tennis, the principle of equal pay for unequal performance is accepted for grand slam events, but not for many others. Elsewhere, the gender pay gap remains striking, notably in football (soccer). The captain of England’s professional women’s team, Steph Houghton, is paid just £65,000 ($90,000) a year, whereas Neymar, the world’s most expensive male player, receives roughly 500 times as much. And while players in England’s women’s super league earn an annual wage of up to £35,000, Chelsea’s male players are paid, on average, a staggering £4.5 million.
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One argument frequently made for equalizing pay is that sportswomen put in as much effort as sportsmen to produce their results. This harks back to the old labor theory of value, which contended that all value was created by work. But the link between hours of work and market prices is almost non-existent in practice, which is why economists needed a different explanation for market prices.
Economists today say that prices (including wages and salaries) are determined by consumer demand. What a thing costs depends not on the amount of time and effort spent producing it, but on what it is worth to the buyer. Male footballers are paid more than female players because their services are more in demand. If women’s football teams started paying their players the same as men’s teams, they would go bankrupt. Unemployment is the price of insisting on being paid above the “market-clearing” level.
Market prices, economists insist, do not measure moral worth but market worth. If we want market-determined rewards to equate with “just” rewards, we either have to abolish markets – the socialist solution – or restructure individual preferences.
One argument is that women in sport would command the same market price as men, if only structural gender biases, such as greater media coverage and sponsorship for men’s sports, were removed. Although market value may be determined by consumer demand, as economic theory has it, these preferences are themselves the result of socially structured gender biases. In the absence of these biases, demand for women’s sports – as measured by attendance at matches, television ratings, and so on – would equal demand for men’s sports.
This argument is based on the assumption – which extends far beyond sports – that real gender equality will not be achieved until the formation of tastes and habits is no longer subject to gender stereotypes. Boys would not automatically be given toy guns, while girls are given dolls.
This sounds reasonable enough, until one recognizes the lengths to which radical feminists are willing to go to re-engineer tastes and preferences. Language is being systematically purged of “gender bias.” University courses in humanities and social sciences are being subjected to implicit or explicit forms of gender censorship. Gender itself is increasingly seen as “socially constructed”; and children, therefore, should be encouraged to choose their own gender.
To me, the latest offensive against men is a good cause gone mad. But then, as a 78-year-old white male, I would think that, wouldn’t I?
Republication forbidden. Copyright: Project Syndicate 2018 The Next Stage of Women’s Emancipation?
Robert Skidelsky, professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University and a fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, is the author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes and a member of the British House of Lords.