The baby pay gap is still alive and kicking

Women aren't "the richer sex".

The Spectator's cover story this week is another re-examination of the changing face of the gender pay gap - somewhat provocatively titled "the Richer Sex".

Needless to say, women are not actually the richer sex. Their median wage remains 11 per cent below men's in the latest comprehensive study by the ONS, from 2007. Instead, the piece's author, Liza Mundy, touches on two trends which she sees in the UK.

The first is that, as the pay gap narrows (and it is narrowing – it is down from 16.5 per cent in 1997), the number of women earning more than their male partners will inevitably increase. Mundy highlights the apparently devastating effects that has on these "pursewhipped" men (a word apparently "slowly entering the English language", though not slowly enough):

I interviewed a woman I'll call Felicity, who married a gregarious salesman earning a third of what she did, But while he enjoyed the lifestyle her money could buy, he came to resent it. He started working less, playing golf more and watching TV instead of coming to bed with her. She wasn't surprised when she found his stash of online porn, but was still shocked. She ended up going into therapy.

Much the same argument was made, reduced to its barest essentials, by Tony Parsons on Woman's Hour in May, when he told Jane Garvey "my penis would literally fall off [if my wife earned more than me]. Literally, Jane, it would literally fall off."

Thankfully, this epidemic of shrivelled members is still a long time coming, because the gender pay gap has more structural reinforcement than Mundy makes out.

She correctly points to the fact that, in the first third of their lives, women – particularly educated, middle-class women – have largely closed the gap. Take the continued better performance of girls at GCSE, or her example of university education:

Women receive 58 per cent of all undergraduate degrees. Half of trainee barristers and 56 per cent of medical students are women, compared with 25 per cent in the 1960s.

And the increased success of younger women has paid off: between the ages of 24 and 32, the pay gap is negative. Younger women earn more than younger men.

But therein lies the rub. Munz optimistically assumes that this will continue; as that cohort ages, the gender gap will disappear, and women will actually become the richer sex. But the evidence points to a different outcome. The gender pay gap hasn't disappeared, it's just become a baby 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).

The pay gap between men and women who are married, cohabiting or in a civil partnership is 14.5 per cent; 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 even enough to not have children, either. Once a woman reaches an age where potential employers think she might have children, the pay gap starts to widen.

The problem is that we have a legal system which emphatically reinforces the idea of women as carers, and from that we get the society we deserve. With the discrepancy between paternity and maternity leave, it's made unfairly difficult for a family to fight traditional gender roles. And so while I hope that Munz is right, and that we will start "calling into question the old notion that women are 'hard-wired' to seek providers", we can't just hope that a generation of smart girls will do it for us.

She might be earning more now, but it won't last... 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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA