Women vs Capitalism by Vicky Pryce review – insightful analysis

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Markets are good at finding the value of some things, but not others. Women are one of those “others”. As Vicky Pryce puts it in her new book, Women vs Capitalism, “women are a valuable resource, whose true value is not understood or reflected in market prices”. This book shines a much-needed light on discrimination that still holds too many women back – and what we can do about it.

I first met Pryce when she was joint head of the Government Economic Service and I was working for a bank. Although I am a couple of decades behind Pryce in terms of experience, so much of what she says resonates with me. When I started work as an economist at the Bank of England, just six of my graduate intake of 37 were women. Two decades on, the bank has still not had a female governor in its 600-year-plus history, and only one of nine members of the bank’s monetary policy committee is a woman. Things are changing – the IMF is headed by Kristalina Georgieva, and the US Federal Reserve was led by Janet Yellen under Obama’s presidency. But, as Pryce argues, even that progress is fragile without a pipeline of talent being nurtured.

Why don’t women get the top jobs? Pryce, like others, argues that women are penalised for having children but that men never are. Taking time out for maternity leave and working part-time results in women missing out on promotion or the opportunities to work on big projects. Too often, women find that the men in their cohort scoop up the big jobs and they end up working for them. Three in four working mothers report discrimination in the workplace; 54,000 a year lose their jobs as a result of having a baby; and, perhaps more surprisingly, periods spent in part-time work lead to nearly no pay progression. The 1970 Equal Pay Act didn’t have any answers to this, although it did a huge amount to stamp out blatant pay discrimination. In 1970, the average male industrial worker earned twice that of a woman. Gender pay gap reporting is beginning to expose the gender divide in the labour market. But, Pryce argues, until firms have to show how they are going to reduce their pay gaps, it is little more than box-ticking.

Beyond the motherhood penalty, Pryce picks up other biases. The truth is “people tend to like people like themselves”. If the people at the top of an organisation are all men, it’s hardly surprising that they hire and promote more men in their image. In making the argument for quotas for women on boards Pryce points to some depressing and shocking attitudes that still prevail in too many boardrooms: “most women don’t want the hassle or the pressure of sitting on a board” or “all the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”. As well as quotas, Pryce’s solutions include better parental leave, access to finance to help female entrepreneurs flourish, pay transparency, and much greater access to flexible working. But the key argument is simple: capitalism won’t fix the problem – and it’s a market failure that costs us all. The talent of too many women is wasted because they don’t get promoted, or in many cases leave the labour market altogether.