More than four decades after lower pay for women was outlawed, the workplace is still riven with prejudices about ‘lifestyle’ and gender roles
Gender pay gap deniers are the truthers of the equality debate. Their view of the world as one in which the possession of two X chromosomes is no barrier to success is so immalleable facts ricochet off its surface without leaving the slightest dent.
Show them last week’s Chartered Management Institute report which found that – in Scotland – female managers earn 29.2 per cent less than their male counterparts (the biggest disparity in the UK) and they will roll their eyes. Show them the Institute of Fiscal Studies report which found that, once women have children, the salary gulf widens from 6 per cent to 30 per cent and they will tap their fingers on their noses and mutter: “Lifestyle choices,” in a knowing tone.
“Lifestyle choices” is the catch-all explanation that absolves society and employers of all responsibility for the fact that women are financially worse off than men. It’s not that men are paid more for exactly the same work, the deniers insist (although such practices have endured despite the legislation), it’s that women “opt” to have children; they “opt” to go part-time; they “opt” to take lower paid jobs.
Don’t believe me? Here’s Ben Southwood of the Adam Smith Institute, explaining how the pay differential is the result of “legitimate” factors.
“As well as women having jobs they rate as more pleasant, and jobs that are objectively less risky, as well as doing more part-time work, women leave the labour market during crucial years, setting them substantially back in labour market terms. That is, the gap comes down to women’s choices,” Southwood writes. Lucky us (eh, gals?) to have so many opportunities.
Choice is something I have wondered a lot about recently. I reckon we attach too much credence to the concept. We often talk as if life were a Las Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet; as if every flavour in the universe was laid out before us and all we had to do was to pick which ones to pile on to our plates. Whereas – even when we are young – our choices exist within parameters set by birth, character, fate and social structures. Later choices are dictated, at least in part, by the ones we took before, so that, as the years go by, they become ever more constricted.
This is true of everyone, but is particularly relevant to the debate on the gender pay gap. Yes, women may choose to have children, but they cannot choose (at least as yet) to pass the task of bearing them to a male partner. And, once they have conceived, they have no power to force their partner to hang around for the main event.
If I look at my own career trajectory, it has been shaped by a complex mix of decisions I made freely and decisions that were forced upon me; while pregnant with my second child, for example, I turned down a succession of job offers because I couldn’t see how I could combine the long hours with raising a young family without being eaten up with guilt. That’s a choice of sorts, I suppose. But it’s not one men are often required to make.
For single mothers, the notion of choice is even more debatable. Without a partner, there can be no UN-style negotiations over who takes up the slack when their child is ill; they have no option but to make their home life their number one priority.
It goes without saying that men’s options are also limited. With shared parental leave still frowned on in many workplaces, they may find themselves stuck on the treadmill, working hard, being promoted, but not necessarily feeling fulfilled. They are likely to earn more money; but again, not necessarily of their own volition.
So how do we disentangle all of this and create a more balanced society? Well, probably not by suggesting women are all grievance-mongers à la men’s rights activist and author of The Glass Ceiling Delusion, Mike Buchanan.
Forcing companies with more than 250 employees to declare what their employees earn should help. Women are always being advised to assert themselves, but it’s easier to make a case for a pay rise when you’ve established if, and by how much, you’re being shafted.
More job-sharing, greater flexibility in working hours, less presenteeism and a campaign to encourage more men to take up shared parental leave would also make an impact.
At the same time, we need to tackle the misconception that women are paid less because they are not prepared to take on dirty or physical roles. Wiping old people’s bottoms, lifting them with hoists and dealing with their dementia is as demanding as tiling roofs or hod-carrying and equally important.
The way to prevent women from languishing in low-paid jobs is not merely to encourage them to enter male-dominated sectors but to rate “women’s” work more highly. Roles traditionally performed by men are not innately more prestigious: they have become so as a result of centuries of discrimination, which can be overturned.
The same is true of the bias towards male negotiating styles. Instead of claiming – like Ed West in the Spectator – that “men’s confidence in demanding higher salaries is linked to testosterone,” why don’t we challenge the idea that we should have to thump our chests like gorillas in order to have our worth acknowledged?
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because we have been having the same debate for 46 years – ever since the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force. And unless the pace of change increases we’ll be having it for years to come.
Last week, after Scotland’s GERS figures were announced, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised to increase workplace equality, which she said would benefit the economy. Shifting attitudes to flexible working patterns and shared parental responsibility would also result in greater and more meaningful choices for women and men alike; and a happier, more productive workforce.