Gender pay gap: what’s it worth?

There's more to life than equal pay.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The UK government’s Women and Work Commission has found that the gender pay gap is worse in Britain than anywhere in Europe. Women in full-time work earn 13 per cent less than men in full-time work, based on median earnings (1). To compound this injustice, women who work part time earn 32 per cent less per hour than women who work full time and 41 per cent less per hour than men who work full time.

Prime minister Tony Blair hailed the report as a ‘ground-breaking piece of work’, and said that a ‘massive amount of work’ remains to be done to close the pay gap between men and women (2). He has appointed minister for women Tessa Jowell as a Cabinet ‘champion’ to produce an action plan. Meanwhile, the Commission has come up with 40 recommendations, involving everything from challenging gender stereotypes to additional regulation.

Katherine Rake, from women’s equality campaign group the Fawcett Society, argues that a major problem is widespread discrimination within the workplace, while commission member John Cridland of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), counters that employers are not to blame: the problem is cultural, because the UK’s education system ‘completely fails’ to alert schoolgirls to the fact that their choices will determine what they earn (3).

Whatever the causes of the gender pay gap, everybody seems to agree that it is a big problem that needs some kind of official resolution: through the law, through government campaigns, and through individual attitudes. But how much of a problem is the pay gap really, and do official ‘solutions’ work?

There seems little doubt that there remains a disparity between women’s pay and that of their male counterparts. This seems to be accounted for by a continuing tendency for women to be paid less than men for doing equivalent jobs; for women’s employment to be concentrated in the lower-paid, lower-skilled professions; for women to take time out of the labour market around the birth of their children; and for women with children to be more likely than men to work part-time.

From the standpoint of women whose primary goal in life is career advancement, these are sobering findings. But when they are placed in the murkier context of most women’s – and men’s – everyday lives, it becomes increasingly difficult to point the finger at those old bogeymen, inequality and discrimination. Because how, in that case, would we account for choice?

For all the official concern about cultural problems leading young girls to choose lower-paid careers, it is worth remembering some more general facts. Girls may well opt for arts degrees over engineering, but that’s not because nobody has told them that engineers earn more than academics – it’s because the ‘male’ professions have fallen out of favour even among men. In ‘Creative Britain’, where everybody wants to work in PR or TV, careers advisers can hardly be blamed if girls are even more likely than boys to follow their hearts rather than their wallets. The fact that the government has, in the past, felt driven to compensate for the national shortage in plumbers by coercing single mothers on to vocational courses shows how thinly the veneer of ‘equal opportunities’ is sometimes stretched to suit instrumental ends.

At school and university, young people make choices – and even if it were right for the government to want to change those choices, it is not going to do so through such initiatives as the Women and Work Commission’s call for single-sex classes to teach girls computing, or government advertising to encourage ‘non-stereotypical portrayals of women and men at work’.
It is also worth remembering that the pay gap for young women – under 30 – is significantly smaller than that for women over 40. Figures from 2003 showed that for women aged 18 to 29, the mean pay gap ranged from three to five per cent, compared with a mean pay gap for women aged 40 to 64 of between 15 to 24 per cent. For both age groups, the pay gap was decreasing (see Women: are we equal now?, by Jennie Bristow).

This tells us two important things: that the younger generation is reaping the benefits of equality legislation, employment practice and cultural shifts in a way that the older generation could not; and that the problems regarding pay inequality kick in when women have children.

In the absence of time travel, there is nothing that can be done to improve the lot of women who began their careers 30 years ago, when life was that much less equal. On the other hand, there is a great deal that could be done to improve the career chances of women who have children today. This is not rocket science – it simply means more and cheaper childcare, with longer working hours that do not force women into a truncated working day, and an official approach to childcare that seeks to assuage parental guilt rather than increase it. This, however, seems way down the list of official priorities – if it appears at all.

Of the Women and Work Commission’s million-and-one recommendations for improving equality at work, only one deals directly with the question of childcare provision – arguing the need to focus on women who work ‘outside “9 to 5” hours and black and minority ethnic communities’. This is clearly perceived as far more boring than the several recommendations focusing on social engineering (manipulating girls’ choices and the ambitions of women returning to work) or tightening up the regulatory framework, through reviews and equality reps and the governmental appointment of ‘a ministerial champion of procurement as a means of spreading best practice in diversity and equal pay matters’.

No doubt such garbled syntax does great things for policymakers sitting on committees. Unfortunately, it does nothing at all for women, their partners or their children.

The big problem with the gender equality discussion today is the extent to which it eschews obvious, practical solutions to obvious, practical problems in favour of highly complex governmental strategies for cultural and behavioural manipulation. Policymakers are happy to bang on about childcare when it is part of a strategy to push single mothers or former housewives into work, whether these women want a paid job or not; when it comes to the simple proposition of making childcare better for those women who already use it, the interest wanes considerably. Why? Because rather than making political gestures about the choices that women and their families should make, such a strategy would amount to condoning the choices that women and their families do make – regardless of how these choices may fit into some rigid framework of equal opportunity and behavioural conformity.

Given the choice, some women with young children would (and indeed, already do) take maximum advantage of the childcare on offer in order to pursue their careers to the full while raising their families at the same time. Others choose to adapt their working ambitions, either temporarily or long-term, to spend rather more time with their kids and rather less on their career, with a consequent impact upon their pay. Some women even (shock horror) choose to stay at home full time. Who is the government to make value judgements about which of these choices is the most valid?

All women, regardless of their ‘work-life balance’, would benefit from having greater flexibility in the childcare domain, whether that means working until 7pm three days a week or having somewhere to leave the baby once a week while they go to the library, or out for a drink. None of them benefits from the contradictory carping that emanates from official quarters, telling them that their responsibility is to get out to work and thus reduce the pay gap, or that full-time daycare is not the ideal environment for young children, or that fathers should be changing more nappies so that mothers can familiarise themselves with the technicalities of plumbing.

When it comes to the tension between work and childcare, as in all other areas of life, women and men make what choices they can and what compromises they have to. In a society that likes to talk the talk on equality while keeping its hands clean on childcare provision, the line between choice and compromise is often less than clear – so in an ideal world, many women may not opt to leave work early to get to the nursery, or stay home for a fortnight when their child has chickenpox. But that does not mean that women or their partners are not making choices – about work, about children, and about how they want to shape their family lives.

What is blindingly obvious, however, is that pat explanations like ‘discrimination’ or ‘gender stereotypes’ don’t wash when it comes to explaining why some women with young children work part-time. Reality is messier than that, and requires practical solutions, not empty political gestures.

It would be nice if the pay gap did not exist. But there is more to life than equal pay, and couples do not organise their family lives according to strict notions of fairness and equality. Furthermore, when closing the pay gap means such patronising recommendations as offering women who have never worked ‘a voluntary session with a Personal Adviser at Jobcentre Plus’ who can give them advice on how to dress, and creating government information campaigns showing men as parents and carers, one wonders who equality is supposed to be for these days (4). Is official equal opportunity something that benefits women, or another stick to beat us with?

(1) Shaping a fairer future: Executive Summary, Women and Work Commission

(2) PM urges progress on UK pay gap, BBC News, 27 February 2006

(3) PM urges progress on UK pay gap, BBC News, 27 February 2006

(4) Shaping a fairer future: Executive Summary, Women and Work Commission

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Topics Politics


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