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 adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.