what is gender anyway?

What is a man? And what is a woman?

So there’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about Germaine Greer and Jack Monroe and what it means to be transgender which has been illuminating and perplexing in equal measure. It’s great that people feel able to speak out and let the world know they are there and sick of being ignored, so hurrah to that.

But parts of it are puzzling. I get that someone might feel strongly that they are a man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a man’s body. Also, there are lots of people who have physical characteristics of both genders and are intersex. Some people feel no sexual attraction and consider themselves asexual. None of that is new and lots of it has been culturally assimilated in parts of the world where it is well known eg. the ‘penis at 12’ children in the Dominican Republic.

But the next bit is more complicated. The non-binary bit. If you feel strongly you are not a woman, not because you are a man, but because you are something else, something between the two or something wholly different, what is that?

What is gender anyway? It started out as the scientific word to classify male or female according to their physical sexual characteristics. Why only two genders? Because there are two types of genitals. There is no third type. Everyone is born with one or other or a combination of the two. I’ve understood transgender to mean people who are in transition from one gender to the other, ‘trans’ meaning ‘change’.

But non-binary people are not in transition. They have always felt they were neither man nor woman but a third gender, and want to be identified as being that. But what does it actually mean? Surely gender isn’t just a feeling of being something? It must relate to something physical or it loses all meaning. Physical sexual characteristics dictate much of how we experience the world through the effect of our hormones on our behaviour and perceptions. Then there is another layer – cultural conditioning, the reaction of people around us to how we look and behave. That shapes who we think we are but must be secondary to how we, in our own bodies, experience our lives. Transgender people have to deal with the mismatch and try to make sense of it all. But does it make it easier or harder if we concede that there is a range of other options out there, that it’s possible to be something totally new and unrelated to anything? What does that even mean?

If our gender is something unrelated to our physicality, what is it? And what is a man? And what is a woman?

Equal Pay Day

So today is #EqualPayDay and there’s a lot of chat on Twitter about equal pay for women. The Telegraph and the Independent announced that from this day on till the end of the year, women are working for free. That’s set the heather burning. Lots of people, mainly men, saying the gender pay gap is a myth.

They make some interesting points. Like, we’ve had an Equal Pay Act since the 70s which made it illegal for men to be paid less than women. Which is true. The only snag is that no one enforces it so it doesn’t work. Failure to pay equally is not a criminal matter, so the police are not going to be phoning up businesses who fail to pay women the same as men doing the same job. No one does that. Only the underpaid women have a right to take action, and these days the tribunal service is so expensive that most can’t afford to make the claim. Also, if they do, they stand a good chance of losing their job or being sidelined. Yes that’s technically illegal too but it still goes on, routinely. No one is monitoring this stuff. And the government has watered down the employment law that might have protected claimants.

So if no one in authority is preventing this and women can’t afford to do anything about it themselves, what is to stop it happening? Nothing. There are success stories. In April this year, a group of co-workers succeeded in a class action against their employer Birmingham City Council after being excluded from bonuses paid to men. There are class actions ongoing against Asda and Sainsbury’s. But most breaches of the law go unnoticed.

All of which begs the question – why? Why are women paid less than men for equivalent work? Many in the ‘myth’ camp point out that if businesses could get away with paying women less, they would just hire women over men and save money. But if businesses did so it would be obvious and would draw negative publicity. Much easier to hide different wage rates. Earners don’t generally share information about what they earn. They’re often in competition with their co-workers. And employers can also call it commercially sensitive information. In other words, they don’t want their business competitors to know what they pay. With women working more part-time jobs than men, it is easy enough to hide the fact they are on lower rates because most people throwing a cursory glance over the wages bill would think a difference in earnings between men and women is down to the differences in hours worked. Negative publicity is in many ways a more effective tool against a business than the existing law because it is free and available to all. And because it carries an effective sanction.

If a policy, whether deliberate or simply tolerated, is costing the business money, it will be changed. It can be changed. Which is why we need to acknowledge the truth of the gender pay gap and demand more action to redress it.

Perhaps it’s time for a tax on unequal pay. Put the onus back on the employers to demonstrate that they pay their employees equally. Why should it be left to women to foot the bill? This is an issue which affects society fundamentally on many levels. It’s in everyone’s interests to sort it out. It’s in the government’s interests because it would put a serious dent in their tax credit bill. Let any difference found between the wages of a woman and a man doing an equivalent job be recoverable by an appropriate authority. Let’s call it the Equal Pay Agency. Make it free and confidential. Then watch the queues form.