We're solving the pay gap - the wrong way

Time for a better debate about what is happening to the pay of women and men.

One of the longest-running campaigns in modern British politics is that for equal pay. As many have pointed out it's over 40 years since the Equal Pay Act yet the gender gap still persists. The good news is progress - even if it is all too slow - is being made. The bad news is that the reason that progress is being made is due to male wages stagnating.

Figure 1: Full-time pay gap, 1997-2011 (median £ hourly pay excluding overtime)

But first, let's pause on what we mean by the "gap". Typically the headline measure used (favoured by the ONS) is that between full-time male and female median pay - that is, typical full time wages (others argue that the "mean" wage should be used as this captures big gender inequalities at the top of the earnings spectrum). But any headline figure cloaks the reality that if you segment the jobs market by age, occupation, or income a different story emerges about pay inequality.

Take age. There isn't a pay gap for the under-25s, and only a pretty modest one for the under-30s. A larger gap starts to open up for those in their 30s, which then increases dramatically for those 40 and above.

Or look at part-time work, which is excluded from the headline pay gap figure. The part-time pay penalty affects millions of women, appears to be getting larger over-time, and, sadly, is bigger in the UK than anywhere else in the EU. There are certain types of jobs that tend to be offered part-time and they are concentrated in low-paying sectors. The result is industrial scale occupational downgrading following childbirth - 48 per cent of mothers on low to middle incomes take a lower-skilled part time job after having children (the figure for graduates is 42 per cent). The price is paid by individual women but also by the wider economy too. The part-time penalty is also likely to reflect a major power imbalance in local jobs markets: big employers appear able to hold down part-time wages in part because there are many women needing to work very locally often due to caring commitments.

There are, of course, many different reasons for the pay gap. And once economists consider some of the main factors such as skill levels, occupation, and time spent out of the labour market a chunk of the "gap" is accounted for (pdf) though a very large part isn't (studies often show that the majority remains unexplained).

How to interpret all this is a matter of some controversy. Those who want to dismiss gender inequalities often imply the "unexplained" gap is largely a mirage or a reflection of female preferences about the nature of the employment roles they want to undertake. Which is an account that entirely side-steps the crucial question of why it is that female-dominated sectors of our economy are so often afforded low status and low pay. I don't think we can put this down to a series of coincidences.

The question of how much of the headline pay gap can be "explained" is often where these discussions about gender and pay end. Except they shouldn't. Because vital though it is, on its own it doesn't get to the heart of some fundamental changes in the nature of gender, work and pay - changes which are also showing up in the shifting nature of poverty.

For a start, if our eyes are trained solely on the headline pay gap we may miss the fact that the reason it continues to fall is changing. Throughout the late 20th century we got used to the idea that with a growing economy typical male wages should generally rise, and female wages should slightly outpace them as they catch up. There would be two rising tides, but the female one would rise faster.

Not now. The progress made on the pay gap over recent years has resulted from female wages climbing slowly while the typical man's pay has flat-lined. This isn't how it was supposed to be.

Figure 2: GDP per capita and full-time wage growth by gender, 1971-2011 (indices of GDP and median wages 1971 = 100)

Dig deeper, as new work by Paul Gregg with the Resolution Foundation does, and we find the pay gap between mothers and fathers has been closing significantly faster than that between men and women more generally - suggesting shifts in earnings responsibility occurring within the family. Moreover, we are also seeing important changes in pay within the genders. Among women we see that since the mid 1990s mothers have experienced faster wage growth than other women. The opposite has happened among men: the wages of fathers' have fallen behind those of other men, to the tune of almost four per cent over the same period. All of which is pretty striking. And none of which is illuminated in changes in the headline pay gap.

We don't know for sure what is behind these trends. But we do know that the pay inequalities within families tends to be self-reinforcing. Couples often arrange their affairs to benefit the career prospects of the highest earner - for instance, in terms of who opts to go part-time following childbirth, who does overtime, or indeed whose job prospects it would be worth moving house to further. These decisions tend to greatly magnify any pre-existing pay differentials within the family. In the past this would have overwhelmingly boosted men's pay at the expense of women's. But with the pay gap for those in their 20s having largely disappeared it may be that there is a growing number of households where these family adjustments are benefiting the mother.

Another possible explanation would point to the rise in part-time working by men - a longer term trend that has accelerated over recent years due to the sharp growth in under-employment. Perhaps there is a bit more equality in how the part-time pay penalty is being shared out across the sexes (pdf), with more men now suffering too? There is bound to be some element of this going on. But this can't be the main explanation not least as male part-time working is still the exception rather than the rule, and because the increases we've seen have been more concentrated among men without children rather than fathers.

Figure 3: Rise of part-time work amongst men

Whatever the cause, it's pretty clear that the poor performance of men's wages - particularly fathers - is closely related to another little noticed trend we see: the steep rise in poverty rates among "single earner couples" (the great majority of whom still have a male bread winner). This group now accounts for a larger share of overall child poverty than out-of-work lone parents.

Figure 4: Poverty by family type, 1994-95 to 2009-10

Like many things in politics it's not hard to see how these shifting patterns of pay and family disadvantage could be used to help justify competing policy agendas. Some will react to the demise of the traditional male breadwinner family by claiming that this only reinforces the case for a transferable marriage allowance (let's leave to one side the fact that many of these single earner couples won't be married).

Alternatively, and for me far more convincingly, the pivotal role of female employment in securing rising living standards for low to middle income households, and the persistently low levels of child poverty in dual earning households, should be seen as a spur to a policy agenda that would increase the affordability of childcare, reduce the part-time pay penalty for women and men (by expanding higher quality part-time work) and favour welfare reforms that encourage rather than deter second earners (the impending universal credit is about to do the opposite).

Regardless of which of these views you favour, what should concern both sides of this debate is how little each has to say about the underlying cause of male wage stagnation - particularly among low-earning fathers and young men. That's an issue everyone across the political spectrum should be focussed on. Yet silence reigns. So let's rightly redouble our efforts to close the pay gap. But let's make sure we close it the right way.

 

40 years since Barbara Castle passed the Equal Pay Act, the gender gap still persists. Photograph: Getty Images

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle