An icon of the suffragette movement, Jane Austen succeeded in transcending boundaries of sex that were otherwise impenetrable. Her ability in creating a depth of character that is so rarely seen won her admirers in both men and women. Winston Churchill was known to turn to Pride and Prejudice during the low moments of the Second World War. Rightly so, the story has retained its appeal into the 21st century. Jane Austen recently became the face of the British £10 note. Yet, having recently read the novel, what struck me most was how drastically the lives of women have changed since the Elizabeth Bennets of the world were attending the balls described by Austen: this is most certainly something to be celebrated.
Take Pride in your work.
Female labour force participation has been on the rise since the industrial revolution. What is often renowned for vast increases in manufacturing and technological advances in fact oversaw one of the most significant social changes of recent history. As factories increased in numbers, women and children gravitated towards the promise of work. During the First and Second World wars, labour shortages required women to occupy jobs that would otherwise have been filled by men. This helped in overcoming negative perceptions of women in the workforce and instilling long-term change. Eventually, the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act landmarked a definitive change in women’s role in the labour market. Since then, work force participation rates for women have risen from 53% to 67% in Britain.
More recent developments explain this continued upward trend. The rise of the service sector, where intelligence is valued over strength, has allowed women to effectively compete alongside men. Additionally, innovations such as the vacuum cleaner have increased individuals’ time endowments allowing them to work more hours if their preferences so dictate. The introduction of the contraceptive pill has further increased opportunities and incentives to acquire skills and work. Without the threat of having to resign from a job due to an impending baby, women can happily dedicate time to their profession.
These changes are responsible for many benefits. Of most importance is the economic freedom granted to women. As argued by Milton Friedman in his masterpiece “Capitalism and Freedom”, one of the benefits of an open economy is the ability to choose and determine your future: it is indisputable that women should also benefit from this. The five Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice did by no means maintain this level of freedom. Days were often restricted to the house and gardens, writing letters, taking walks and eating luncheons. This may appear idyllic to some, but being housebound until a Mr Darcy comes to take you to Pemberley House is dangerously close to imprisonment.
The macroeconomic benefits are also numerous. UN Women, a United Nations entity, highlight how an increase in labour force participation results in faster economic growth. Indeed, as women enter the labour force this increases the availability of human capital. In turn, this stimulates an outward shift in a state’s production frontier. On a more humanitarian note, a study by Emmanuela Gakidou (2010) found that for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5%.
Still there is Prejudice…
Unfortunately, many obstacles still hold women back from achieving their aspirations. A Female FTSE Board Report in 2016 found that less than 25% of boardroom recruits were women. In Britain and America the average full-time female worker still only earns 80% as much as her average male counterpart. Part of this is a longstanding, archaic prejudice against women. Betty Friedan would deride some of the blatant sexist beliefs held by many men in the workplace: a recent example being Trevor Kalanick. However, there remain structural issues too that must be resolved. Many women are still forced to choose between family and profession. Large firms often demand vast amounts of time for chance of promotion and higher wages. Caring for kids and a career is too often incompatible.
There is reason to be positive however. States are looking to make the system more accommodating of the family/career dilemma. Finland has introduced three years of paid leave for mothers whilst Iceland has begun to increase incentives for fathers to care for children. On a micro level, firms are looking to transform also. Barclays offer five years of unpaid leave, time that can be spent attending school football matches and PTA meetings. Clearly, we should take pride in the seismic transformation that has occurred since the time when Jane Austen was writing. There is still prejudice to overcome, but the upside is that the change has not yet stopped.