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.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity