Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Women in Contemporary Britian

Jane Pilcher
TELOS (The Electronic Library of Science): New York
1999
0415182743 (pb)
12.99 (pb)
190 pp

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This useful introduction to the study of gender difference at the end of the twentieth century achieves its purpose of providing up to date empirical evidence of the persistence of gender inequalities across different areas of experience. Pilcher states t hat women's experiences have recently been 'de-centred' by current preoccupations with exploring changes in masculinities. The book redresses this by making accessible a wide range of materials, ideas and analyses that not only put gender inequality firml y back on the agenda but also explore differences between women. In what, by necessity, must be an abbreviated descriptive account spread across such a wide span of concerns, she achieves not only a highly readable review of arguments and analyses but als o provides invaluable references to further literature critiques.

Particularly well developed are the chapters dealing with the contemporary patterns of paid and unpaid work in women's lives. At the end of a century which, it is often suggested, has been witness to fundamental changes in gender roles and expectations, Pilcher effectively documents the extent to which the arrangements for combining domestic and paid work still seriously disadvantage many women. She points out that age has now become a major signifier of the extent to which new employment and career oppo rtunities are making a difference to women's lives. The arrival of children is still also seen as the major life experience that demotes many women to the lower levels of part-time low paid work. In perhaps her most interesting insight into the developmen t of new forms of gender inequality in employment she refers to evidence of how employers are adopting different strategies of 'flexible working' depending on the gender of the worker rather than the nature of the work. Exploding the myths of the New Man and his enhanced domestic roles, Pilcher stresses that women continue to bear the primary responsibility for housework and caring work in the home. She also uses studies of the experiences of women of South Asian ethnicities to caution against the stereo typical depiction of these women in terms of the domestic division of labour. In these areas of the book the integration of empirical evidence and the discussion of theoretical explanations is particularly well accomplished.

This integration of theory and empirical evidence is also marked in other chapters but with perhaps more emphasis on providing an introduction to theoretical concerns rather than attempting to evaluate them. For an introductory text it is refreshing to se e such a wide range of areas of experience covered; education; love and personal relationships; the body; popular media culture; the criminal justice system and political participation. Each chapter invites the reader to exercise caution against over esti mating the amount and significance of the change in women's lives. Notably in the sphere of education the recent evidence of improved examination performance by girls is set against the evidence of studies that show how deeply gendered the curriculum and its delivery continues to be. In its treatment of women, as victims and offenders, Pilcher is critical of the continued masculinised face of the legal system. Recent medical technological interventions, such as reproductive technologies and HRT, are given critical scrutiny in the chapter on the body and technology.

The strengths of the book lie in its presentation of substantial areas of material in an accessible and lively manner. Somewhat disappointing is the lack of any attempt to integrate the reflections upon feminist perspectives and gender theorising raised i n the first chapter with the subsequent empirically based discussions. Pilcher admits to leaving it up to the reader to decide on the value of competing theories of gender whilst stating a preference for Connell's social theory of gender in explaining the persistence of gender inequalities. At the very least the support for this preference could have been forthcoming from some concluding integrated discussion of the key issues raised in each chapter. Nevertheless, this book will prove itself to be extreme ly valuable as an up to the minute introductory text on women and gender inequalities.

Jenny Ryan
Manchester Metropolitan University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000