Bill Jamieson: Will gender equality force men to do housework?
Our minds are made up and the conclusions foregone. Ahead of the midnight deadline last night, some 8,870 companies had submitted figures on the gender pay gap in their businesses, and of those, 78 per cent revealed that they pay men more than women.
What was long suspected is now revealed as truth demanding a response. Remedial action and reform must surely follow. For with such evidence, who need pause to correct what Prime Minister Theresa May has described as the “burning injustice” of the gender pay gap?
But pause we should, to reflect not only on the statistical merit of these figures but also on where remedial action might ultimately take us. For where exactly are we headed? A place alien to our culture and offensive to our better sense, I fear.
A natural starting point is regulation: this, campaigners insist, must be an early option to enforce equal pay for men and women. Rhetorical assurances and commitment to change over time is not enough, for these have proved inadequate and have effectively allowed inequality to persist. This may be a broadly agreed starting position. But that is not at all the same thing as agreement on a final ending.
Laws against gender discrimination in pay already exist. The 1970 Equal Pay Act proscribed disparities between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment. The legislation was later subsumed in the broader Equality Act of 2010. This embraced previous legislation on pay, sex discrimination, race relations and disability discrimination. The Act required equal treatment in access to employment as well as private and public services.
And today we now have a survey hailed as a game-changer. However, the findings are already the subject of statistical challenge. In particular many have challenged the use of statistical averages rather than median data which works to avoid distortion by extremes at either end of the pay spectrum. The survey is also open to the objection that differences in pay are the product of many factors including age, experience, training, skills and employees’ own preferences by way of flexible hours, non-participation in overtime and part-time working.
Thus, so many different influences, often based on the granular detail of individual work situations and workplace specific agreements, cannot be reduced to the one single variable of gender.
Nevertheless, it is being widely seen as a spur to further regulatory action: a demand to see not just superficial corrections in gender pay but long-term efforts to reduce disparities. Chloe Chambraud, gender equality director at Business in the Community, urges that employers “must address the root causes of inequality, from reducing bias and increasing transparency in recruitment, appraisal and promotion processes to normalising flexible working, for men and women, and offer financially viable parental leave packages … Only then we will ensure that men and women have equal lives at work and home”. Others have called for state intervention and enforcement as the pay gap, in the words of the august Financial Times, cannot be closed without “corporate policies and statutory underpinning to allow and actively encourage more equal sharing of family responsibilities”.
Let’s just think this through, for here we step, or rather leap, from the world of the workplace to that of home, and in particular what have been until now privately determined arrangements for home keeping and child care. It would no longer be acceptable for fathers to view their family responsibilities as being the primary breadwinner.
The logical end is that they take on an equal share of house-keeping, shopping and childcare duties, irrespective of preference or aptitude, their own wishes or even the preferences of their partners and children. If the pay gap is to be eliminated, the private home duties of partners have to be as near identical as possible. This would create a playing field, obliging fathers to set aside their work ambitions in favour of less demanding jobs. But the reality is that most men and women have different career aspirations and priorities – different life goals.
For example, much is made of the fact that many of the top jobs in business and the public sector are dominated by men, and that such a re-arrangement of home and child care duties would enable more women to aspire to these positions. The implication is that all women equally aspire to senior positions often involving long working weeks of 70 hours and more, loss of weekends and public holidays. Yet for many women such a commitment is one they do not at all personally favour.
The final destination of this journey is that every family would be the same. As it is, many would regard regulatory prescription of private living arrangements as a further encroachment of freedom and an invasion of family life.
In Scotland a major lunge in this direction was attempted through proposals to introduce ‘named person’ supervision – an external monitor for every child. The plan met opposition and MSPs agreed last December to suspend the legislative timetable. But there is still a vocal lobby in favour of such a scheme: many in Scotland believe the welfare and protection of children must take precedence. And if one window is knocked into the soul of family life, why not another, in the good name of gender equality? In this the personal preferences of women are seen not as the product of free choice but of the dominant patriarchal culture – the breeding ground of “structural inequality”. Once this is accepted, opposition is dismissed as the product of false consciousness.
It would be tempting to dismiss this as an extreme extension of the feminist campaigner case. But it is consistent with a broader direction of travel: the extension of the state into ever more areas of life, into what we eat, drink, live, purchase and, increasingly, speak and think. An informed elite will make better decisions on our behalf. And why should we resist, if incomes and lifestyles are made equal? It’s the way we’re moving now – whatever our own dispositions, choices and personal preferences may be.