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 chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR