24 April 2020

Women vs Capitalism:

Why We Can’t Have It All in a Free Market Economy

Vicky Pryce
2019, Hurst & Company, 351 pages,
ISBN 9781787381742

Reviewer: Ian Bright

For those who have not read around the topic of women in society and their economic prospects, Vicky Pryce’s book provides a good background on the main issues and extensive data. The exception is the coverage of bias. This part is disappointing. It draws little on the literature about unconscious bias and behavioural change relating to women in the workforce. It relies more on anecdotes. There are many practical approaches that can be used to address these behavioural issues and how change can be introduced to recruitment and promotion within organisations in such a way that the culture changes. Iris Bohnet’s book “What works; Gender Equality by Design” covers these topics in depth.

However, Bohnet’s work is not referenced in this section and is referred to only indirectly in the part of the book devoted to solutions by noting the UK Behavioural Insight Team’s 2018 paper on reducing the gender pay gap.

Discussion of bias forms one four parts of the book. The three other parts are an overview of international data on the extent of the pay and power gaps, a description of how motherhood and caring create career breaks that affect women more than men, and an outline of solutions.

For those aware of the literature, the book provides a handy source of data in one place and a source of anecdotes providing colour to the data.

The book’s central argument is that there is a market failure which allows the pay and power gap against women to persist. This is despite existing legislation on equal pay, the requirement for many companies to publish gender pay gaps, and movements to get women on company boards.

The solutions suggested are wide-ranging but not novel. These include greater flexibility in working arrangements for all workers so that women are less likely to be trapped in part-time work due to motherhood and caring duties. Part-time work reduces both career prospects and pay levels but would be less problematic if more men also worked part-time.

Quotas backed by penalties for representation of women at various levels of seniority and not just at board level are mooted. However, amongst the various suggestions made, there is no sense of which may be more effective or urgent.

The book would be more effective by concentrating on the argument that the disadvantage faced by women is a result of market failure. It is telling that it is not until page 76 of 300 pages of text that market failure is defined in some detail and how it relates particularly to women. Concentrating on market failure would have added to the literature and given the book more heft. However, this approach may also have made the book less accessible to a general reader, which may be at whom the book is aimed .

While the suggestions made to improve the lot of women (and I would think men) are not necessarily new, it appears they are still controversial to many. For example, the Right Honourable Dominic Raab, currently First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the UK Government, has made statements in the past on gender equality including softening gender pay reviews. These statements indicate disagreement with the suggestions made at senior levels of the UK government. Reforms along the lines proposed would face stiff opposition.

Given this probable opposition, a more clinical and detailed examination aimed precisely at market failure and gender issues is needed. Some, indeed many, still do not believe women face particular disadvantages.