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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gender pay gap (especially in universities, because that’s where I work). Over the last few years, some Canadian universities (e.g. McMaster and Waterloo) have done internal studies to determine the extent of the pay gap and have implemented pay raises in order to compensate and help close the gap. There are some standard “justifications” raised against the idea of a gender-based pay gap, none of which are worth trying to rebut, for example that women don’t ask for pay raises, a canard which has been thoroughly debunked. As I’ve been working my way through Marx’s Capital, however, I began to wonder what the economic justification and mechanisms were (and by this I don’t mean what are the avowed economic explanations, but what are the underlying dynamics of capitalism that create the conditions for a pay gap along gender or racial lines).

Marx starts out with a very simple question: when we exchange two commodities, how do we determine their value? His answer to this is that value is created by human labour: the labour theory of value which he took over from (e.g.) David Ricardo, states that human labour creates value which is then “embodied” in the commodity. This value is immaterial and not easily measurable, since its measure is really the “socially necessary labour time” embodied in the commodity. Over time, one commodity becomes a “universal measure” of any value, and we end up calling that commodity money. So, we can say that any output of production has value through being a product of human labour, and this value can be measured in money.

Money, Marx continues, is not the same as capital. The capitalists have to have a reason to bring labour and raw material together, to advance their own money to set up in industry and produce commodities. This incentive is profit, which returns to the capitalists after they sell the commodities they have produced. The question now becomes, how does the magnitude of value increase during the process of production, so that the commodities are worth more when they are sold than the raw materials and labour costs that went into them? In other words, where does the profit come from? (Capital is money that performs this operation of regularly increasing value).

Since the capitalist pays money for raw materials and for human labour, and only human labour can create new value, the extra value (what Marx calls surplus value) can only come from value added to the commodity that the capitalist has not paid for. But how can this be, considering that workers sell their labour to capitalists on the free market? Surely the workers are capable of demanding the wage they want! (See here how the arguments for lower wages for women are the same as the arguments used to justify worker exploitation at the time Capital was written). The price of the commodity “labour power” (what the worker has to sell) is set on the market the same as everything else: it is the cost of all the commodities that went into its production, so the wages that a worker can command are equal to the amount of money spent on creating them as a worker (this explains why people with degrees are paid more in our society: all the money laid out on making them the worker they are goes into the price they can command for their labour power). Let’s say the worker asks for $100 per day in wages and in 8 hours of work produces $100 of value - in that case no surplus value is produced and the capitalist receives no profit. The task of the capitalist is therefore to try to get the worker to produce more than $100 worth of value in an 8 hour day.

There are many ways that this can be done. Marx distinguishes between lengthening the working day and increasing the productivity of labour. Iff the worker produces $100 in 8 hours, they will produce $150 in 12 hours, even if they’ve already agreed to be paid only $100) and if, trough increased automation for example, a worker can now produce $150 worth of value in 8 hours, but you still only pay them $100 dollars, then in both cases $50 of surplus value is produced and pocketed by the capitalist.

But the capitalist can never stop at, say $50 worth of profit, because all the other capitalists are competing to increase their own profits, making it harder and harder to create surplus value anywhere. So the process continues, with capital constantly seeking new ways to cheapen labour and to increase productivity. Looked at from this angle, any social mechanism by which lower pay for some labour can be justified (i.e. labour performed by women) is worth it as it increases the amount of surplus labour performed by women, and hence the surplus value derived from their work. These social mechanisms are present as flat-out misogyny, but also operate in less direct ways (it has been suggested for example that women are subtly disadvantaged during salary negotiations).

Lenin referred on more than one occasion to the bribery of the upper levels of the working class, the raising of their standard of living to bring them around to support the status quo. The reason for increased exploitation of women with respect to men, is that enables male workers to be bought off by being in a better situation (this too manifests itself in insidious social ways, corrosive to both men and women). What has been said here applies to any group (i.e. new immigrants, racial minorities, etc.) which can be exploited to a higher degree and played off against other groups within the working class. One thing to bear in mind (especially among male workers who are happy with their lot) is that, under capitalism, all workers are exploited, all workers are forced to produce surplus value. What we have here is a condition in which women are more exploited because they are women.

It seems clear to me that all Canadian universities (not to mention all other workplaces) ought to be immediately implementing plans to investigate the pay gap and take measures to close the gap. If not proposed by university administration, it ought to be a plank in all upcoming collective bargaining. Reducing the rate of exploitation of any and all members of a collective bargaining unit ought to be a priority for the unit as a whole. It’s something, indeed, that would be worth striking over.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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