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.

Photo: Getty
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

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