The surprising truth about the pay gap

Is it all about babies?

One of the few examples of genuine institutional prejudice against men is set to be closed this year. The Queen's Speech contained the brief announcement that:

Measures will be proposed to make parental leave more flexible so both parents may share parenting responsibilities and balance work and family commitments.

But a move towards genuine equality of parental responsibilities may prove to be a case of "be careful what you wish for" for many men, because who cares for children seems to have a strong relationship to who earns the most in society at large.

The existence of a pay gap between genders is an incontrovertible fact. The most recent in-depth study of the discrepancy, by Debra Leaker for the ONS in 2008 (pdf) found that, as of 2007, the median female wage was 11 per cent below the median male one. It's a striking figure, and made all the more relateable by the various ways in which people have presented it – none more so than the Fawcett Society, who "celebrate" No-Pay Day on October 30th each year, to represent the point at which women have done enough work to earn their salary if they were paid the equivalent of men (the discrepancy between the numbers – October 30th is only 83 per cent of the way through the year – is due to the Fawcett Society using mean rather than median salaries, and the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings not the Labour Force Survey).

There are a lot of possible reasons for the gender pay gap, but one that is less discussed by those fighting to end it is motherhood. Indeed, there is barely a gender pay gap at all: it would be far more accurate to call it a birth pay gap.

The pay gap between women and men with no children is 8.0 per cent. The pay gap between women and men with four children is 35.5 per cent. (For one child, it's 12.3, two is 14.9, and three is 19.0).

Similarly, the pay gap between 18 and 24 year olds hovers around 1 per cent, and actually goes negative for 24 to 32 year olds. That is, the median 28-year-old woman actually earns more than the median 28-year-old man. It then rises steadily until it hits 20 per cent for over 45s:

The pay gap between men and women who are married, cohabiting or in a civil partnership is 14.5 per cent (to be clear, that is the pay gap between a woman who is married and a man who is married, not between a woman and the man she is married to); the pay gap between single men and women is -1.1 per cent. For the purposes of the point I am making, of course, one can read "single" as "unlikely to have a child any time soon".

It's not altogether surprising that having children increases the pay gap. Paid statutory maternity leave is 26 weeks; paid statutory paternity leave is two. Stepping off the career ladder for 24 weeks is always likely to hurt one's future earnings. Even the gap for childless women could be – unfortunately – explained by employers being wary of taking someone on who may then leave for six months.

All of which is to say that assigning men equal rights to parental leave may backfire if those same men are arguing for it out of a perceived sense of unfairness. There is, and always has been, a trade-off. A society which forces women to be the primary caregivers is also one which keeps men as the breadwinners. If a man wants to assume equal responsibility for looking after his child, he still finds that tricky to do (just as if a woman wants to assume an equal position in the world of business) – but the reason for that isn't a global conspiracy of feminists struggling to keep men out of their children's lives. It is the dreaded p-word: patriarchy.

End that, and men will be as free to share parental roles as we want. But if the gender pay gap equalises out, with men paying an equal share of the risk employers take on when they hire someone about to have a child and losing an equivalent chunk of career progression, we won't be the winners.

A father kisses his young child. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.