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Vicky Pryce: Equal Representation in Economy and Law

In May, 2020 Equality Now Board Member, Patricia Amira, sat down(virtually) with economist and author, Vicky Pryce, to discuss her latest book, Women Vs. Capitalism, and the links between economic systems and gender inequality around the world.

You’ve said that it wasn’t difficult for you to write Women vs Capitalism, purely because there already exists so much information that points to the glaring benefits inherent in having a more equitably paid workforce. Briefly take us through the case you have made, illustrating some of the key issues for us?

I’ve come at it from a completely economic perspective and there is an awful lot that has already been written in relation to fairness and of course we’ve also had the #MeToo movement which has looked at the balance of power between men and women.

In a way, both of those things have assisted me in focusing the book on the way the market works right now. My view is that, unless you do something about economic empowerment and redressing that balance, we’re never going to be able to get over that power balance, unless women are treated equally economically.

The real issue for me is how do you make the case that you do need that economic balance, generally, for the economy to function better and for better prosperity for everyone. It is not only a nice thing to have but it is an essential thing to have from an economic perspective.

What’s going on right now, in many parts of the world, is that there are all sorts of restrictions that are put in the way of women being able to be in the right position in relation to work, in relation to decision making and you end up in a sub-optimal situation because the market hasn’t priced in the positive impact of having women work at the proper skill level, contribute more generally and be valued in the system. It also doesn’t price in the negative impact of not having women operating at the right level.

We are, right now, in a situation where there are so many obstacles across the world and you end up with either women not participating properly in the labor market, or where they do, they are not allowed to contribute to their full potential and the economy loses out in terms of growth, prosperity, productivity.

What are the biggest challenges to overcome for women in the global south, where part-time work and the informal sector make up the majority of women’s employment and where there are no safety nets such as those that exist in the UK for example?

You need to look at the whole legislation that exists. In some countries, you still don’t have the right to good work unless your husband allows it. That is changing, gradually, but many women are still restricted from doing the “right” jobs in the “right” areas, so you end up in the informal sector much more.

And if there isn’t a proper welfare system or a proper healthcare system or even a proper education system that forces the country to keep girls in education until they are old enough to enter the labor market (if that is what they wish) then you don’t end up with women playing the right part in society.

And then there is also childcare. In many countries, particularly in the west, you still don’t have proper institutionalized childcare for children below school age and that is a huge cost for women who end up doing the work themselves.

Your book covers some huge questions about what needs to change to deliver livelihood protection and equitable pay for women. But it’s based on pre-Covid-19 data and a global pandemic brings its own set of challenges for women. What opportunities do you believe we have, even with so much in flux right now, to make change and to deliver equality for women in the economy?

The first thing to say is that it is difficult. Because of course there is going to be a lot less money going around and one will need to recreate the demand for the various jobs that have been lost. Of course, the healthcare sector is going to be one that is going to attract a lot of attention and there are many women who work in that sector.

But one positive thing we can look at is that there has been an increase in recognition of their contribution and their value because historically they have been terribly undervalued in those areas. In reality, we as a country (the UK) have not valued those jobs that mostly women do, highly enough. And I think there is an opportunity that that perception can change and that is the one positive thing I can see. But what has happened so far, in terms of job cuts, it has been women who have suffered the most.

Another opportunity is that we know that women, generally, across the world, do most of the unpaid work, the caring work and they don’t get recognized. But, I think the crisis has brought forward the conversation around Universal Basic Income. I am in favor of this, and there is a hope that it might rise in the agenda now.

Inequality has been on the rise and the demand for social justice is rising as well. Are there any recommendations you can make on the role of women’s rights organizations in this climate?

Yes, absolutely. I think one has to be considerably more vociferous and explain the issues.

For example, one study in Norway did a longitudinal analysis of what happened in various countries from 1500-1850 more or less and tracked the changes that took place in some countries where the marriage age of women was increased in some places but not others. And over the period of time, not only did women get better educated, they were able to pass it onto their children and they were able to participate in the labor force and over time those countries became the more advanced ones. And that study, which is only an examination of countries in Europe shows the difference those changes can make over a period of time.

All the barriers that are put in women’s paths for entering employment are basically akin to information asymmetry. For example, the women don’t know or they haven’t been told, or they don’t have the proper information. They also don’t know how much the person next door to them earns, etc. That is interesting because there is now an increasing push to get more transparency, especially with pay so you can compare.

In the UK we now have these pay reviews which have shown that women have been underpaid for ages, like the BBC for example. But for some reason, the immediate reaction is instead to take away money from the men instead of increasing the pay for the women.

What opportunities are there for the restructuring of the way we do budgets moving forward to provide for the wellbeing of all?

Yes, I think an awful lot can be done to improve the educational opportunities for women. In the UK something like 43% of the women do part-time work and if you do part-time work it is well known that you work at least one level below your skill level and your trajectory isn’t high enough. Not only do you end up not being paid enough during your lifetime but you also end up with a pension wealth that is ⅕ on average of what it is for men, so what we need to do is train the women because when working part-time it is much less likely that you will get to do training to move up in your career.

We also need more women in decision making but the representation has to filter down. And when you look at what’s happening in the private sector there is still very little acceptance for women in leadership roles.

Do you feel there is a generational gap between those who believe in pay transparency and those who think it is “inappropriate”?

No, I don’t think it is a generational gap, I think it is a gender gap. I think the men don’t really like to, and maybe I’m generalizing, but I think they would rather not let people know they are earning more, especially if they have to pay some of it back.

I think there is an interesting issue, which is how do you make it all work through the legislative system. How do you enshrine pay equality in your society? Also equivalence is very important by looking at the people working the same types of jobs. The more we can work those things into the legal framework of countries, the better it will be for women and the economy overall.