One of the most pressing and publicized ‘difference’-related injustices – we’ll get to that in a minute – is clearly that of sex and the ways in which male and female identities function in modern day consumer capitalism. It should be noted here, however, that the topic is so vast that of course, I must make generalizations based on patterns rather than specific instances to the contrary which are likely to be the minority of cases. As mentioned earlier, my frame of reference will be that of “‘difference’-related injustices” by which I mean not that women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, disabled people are inherently ‘different’ but rather to refer to groups who are outside the capitalist supremacy, namely that of white cis-bodied straight able males.
So, let’s dive in with one of the most widely publicized issues on the matter, that of the gender pay gap. Interestingly, in Western countries like the UK and the US, there remains a wide disparity in the overall earnings of men and women, despite their salaries, on the whole, being an equal rate of pay. Generally speaking, men and women are paid the same base rate for the same position at the same company. So if men and women are paid the same, surely there’s no problem? I wish, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Though salary is crucial in ensuring that males and females achieve financial parity, social factors play a huge role in determining one’s life earnings.
The infographic above picks out and highlights key social factors what lead to women being paid less on the whole than their male counterparts.
To really get to the bottom of the issue, we must examine how and what a woman is conceived as and how this might affect her behaviour. As Simone de Beauvoir famously put it in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. To this day, women conform to traditionally ‘female’ roles which often have a nurturing or passive aspect to them, perhaps accounting for why woman are overrepresented in ‘caring’ professions. Though of course women are not subject to the same kind of pressure as of the past where childbearing was an inevitability, there remains an unspoken assumption that this is the past that most women will take. Typically, men advance within their careers not because they are generally more capable, but because women take more time out from work to balance a home life and a career. More part-time jobs are taken up by women as well as time off for maternity leave and childcare. What initially seemed like a simple problem is evidently more complex than it first appears.
So, who or what is to blame? Is it rich, sexist business executives who’d rather not have to work alongside anyone not wearing a tailored suit and tie? Is it the government’s fault for not putting in place adequate measures to support working women? Annoyingly, there is no simple answer. Rather than looking for a specific party to blame, someone or something with a face, it might be worth taking aim of the structure of society itself. Capitalism engenders competition, creating and maintaining antagonistic relationships. In this particular scenario, women (with notable exceptions) are the losers in this game.
Much has been said recently too about the media’s role in the construction of gender and the implications for sexual and gender identity. As cliched as the example is, I will be bringing in the example of gender-oriented marketing targeted at young children, usually through thematic advertising or colour coding. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. A National Geographic article references the work of sociologist Elizabeth Sweet from the university of California, who has written about how the marketing of toys – previously heavily gendered – became more neutral with the rise of second-wave feminism. The tides were turned, however, with the 1980s where marketers saw an opportunity with ultrasound technology whereby parents were able to tell the sex of their child before birth. With the turn of the 21st century, this trend has only become more pronounced.
Crucially mentioned is the effect on the psychology of the child as they grow to adulthood. Toys that encourage “spatial thinking”, according to a 2012 report by Susan Levine, are both those that are generally marketed to boys and those that are important for “executive function” or “higher level thinking”, Levine using this evidence to explain for the “underrepresentation of women in science and tech”. This, however, is only on example of how capitalism manipulates the concept of gender to achieve the greatest prophet at the cost of its consumers. Boys fare no better than girls in this matter, for when young men feel as though they must rigidly conform of one definition of what it means to be a man, they inevitably suffer. The traits that corporations deem ‘masculine’, such as independence, strength, competitiveness and being emotionally distant are clearly not conducive to happiness when their implications are taken at face value. Neither are those deemed to be ‘feminine’, such as obedience, passivity and being overly-emotional.
Admittedly, the issue of gender identity and the myriad biological and cultural factors that contribute to it is vast and I wholeheartedly accept that I am making sweeping statements that will not apply in many cases. To be sure, I am out of my depth. For many of us, however, this is an important way of analyzing how we’ve processed the social and cultural signals sent our way over our lifetimes and of how we’ve understood and internalized them. On the whole, being gendered in this way does not make us happy. Capitalism is one factor contributing to these gender norms. Capitalism does not and will not make us happy.
Sitting at the bottom of my closet now are 6 pairs of near-identical white trainers, albeit second-hand. Every time I open the door and happen to see them, I’m transported back to Paris this August just passed, to a street right in the centre overlooking the famous Seine where the picturesque and elegantly decaying buildings housed the likes of Prada. Gucci and Chanel, some of the most well-known and sought-after fashion brands. Even at 9am there was a lot of foot traffic – primarily tourists – who would glance and stare at the windows as they passed. There were few people actually in the shops. I reached a corner and was about to turn when the shoe display of one such store caught my eye (surprise, surprise) and what I saw caught me right off guard. There, behind the glass, were four pairs of designer white trainers lined up in a row with three digit price tags, pristine white except for the strategically placed artificial scuff and dirt marks on their surface. Really.The people who could afford such shoes i.e. the rich were willing to pay several hundred euros for shoes that looked already worn. God forbid they actually just go on eBay and buy a pre-loved pair for €5. No, instead people are willing to pay to get the clout that comes with designer brands but also the appearance of being relaxed, a person not overly preoccupied by fashion or their appearance. Ha.
Capitalism itself is based on an ideology, namely that the more work one puts in, the more benefits they reap. It’s been a while since Adam Smith wrote of the “invisible hand” that guides the market and we’re still recovering from that post-WWII slap in the face.We say that so-and-so is ‘self-made’, that anyone from any walk of life can change their circumstances and go from rags to riches provided that they’re willing to work and sacrifice for it. In short, the capitalist system is founded on the illusion that we live in a meritocratic society, an illusion that actually favours those born into privilege and hurts those who aren’t. In truth, we do not live in a world where one’s hard work pays off; the individual must first overcome any number of social and psychological barriers that make such a transformation near impossible.
Benjamin is born at St Mary’s Hospital in London at 03:06 to parents Lucy and Richard. Manawa is born on the same ward 27 minutes later to parents Maia and Ari. Though they live in the same borough they go to different schools, Benjamin attending a private academy while Manawa goes to the good local state school. Benjamin receives extra tuition and is taught by academics who are famous in their field. Manawa achieves top grades in school thanks to her natural intellect and drive to succeed, even though she misses lesson time when she is on her period or if her teachers go on strike, which happens three times in her schooling career. Benjamin achieves todes at A-level and Lucy and Richard are both proud and relieved that their time and means allowed their child to achieve academic success. Manawa also achieves top grades for which she is grateful to her parents and school for the support they were able to give her through a difficult though formative time. Benjamin applies and is accepted to a Russel Group university where he studies comfortably throughout his degree. He goes out with his friends a couple of nights a week and though his grades aren’t perfect he likes that he’s been able to juggle school and a social life. He mainly relies on his maintenance loan to live day-to-day, though his parents pay is annual rent and occasionally pay for his shopping. Manawa also receives a place at a Russel Group university. With her parents unable to subsidize her living costs, Manawa must work a part-time job on the side to compensate for the living costs her loan doesn’t cover. She rarely socializes and sometimes struggles to study as she fairly regularly experiences burn-out. While Benjamin identifies with many of his fellow classmates and the major names studied on his course, Manawa – though she has friends – feels a distinct sense of isolation. She studies few women on her course, let alone women who are not white. In later life, Manawa finds it more difficult to get a job as employers are put off by the name on her CV. Benjamin is easily and warmly accepted into the fold. Both Benjamin and Manawa marry and have children, however childcare is so expensive that Manawa must take time off work and subsequently is not put up for the promotion she was hoping for while Benjamin’s earning potential continues to grow.
I could go on, but it’s easy to see how we do not live in a society that rewards merit above all else, that in fact circumstance, sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and class are all key determinant factors in how our lives play out. That’s why I’ve decided to begin a short series on capitalism and its intersections. I want to explore the differing ways in which our social model responds to or neglects the needs of the people as the social, economical and political are all intricately woven into the fabric of modern society.