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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Why there are fewer free-range eggs on sale right now

Because of restrictions designed to combat avian flu, some farms are losing their free-range status. Should consumers accept barn birds for now?

“How do you like your eggs,” asks the terrible chat-up line, “fried or fertilised?” But caged, barn, free-range or organic is the tougher choice faced by many. And come March the decision could get more complex still - as measures taken to combat the recent outbreak of avian flu begin to bite.

An H5N8 strain of flu has been identified across a number of UK and European farms this winter, and in response the government ordered all poultry to be kept indoors. But under EU regulations on classification, any hen kept inside for more than 12 weeks loses its "free range" status. Many consumers prefer free-range eggs for their higher welfare potential - so farmers fear losing business along with their label.

The 12-week limit has been reached today. After that, what happens next depends on whether farmers are working in a higher or lower risk area, as identified by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs on this interactive map. Those at higher risk must either cover their outdoor space with expensive netting or keep their hens indoors.

Those in lower risk areas may let their hens outside under supervision. But even then, producers are fearful of letting their hens outside and potentially exposing them to the flu. “It would finish us off if we got it,” says Susie Macmillian of Macs farm, “we’d lose all our wholesale customers – and I’m absolutely terrified about it."

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has thus ruled that all commercial boxes of free-range eggs must now carry stickers explaining that the hens have been housed indoors, regardless of what risk area they came from.

So what can consumers do to help? For Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming, it is vital that consumers temporarily put aside concerns about keeping hens indoors in order to support free-range and organic producers through this tricky time.

“In the short run these farmers need supporting - whether they call their eggs barn-produced or free-range,” says Brooke. “If people stop buying the eggs because they think the hens are being shut inside, then the farmers are going to have to kill the flocks. And you may end up without the free-range market”.

Continuing to buy these newly labelled eggs will therefore help tide the industry over this present crisis. But the scramble to explain the flu crisis to consumers is also showing up the sector’s wider cracks. "Free-range systems have the greatest potential to provide high welfare conditions for hens, but this potential is not always achieved,” says Professor Christine Nicol from the University of Bristol. 

Cage-free brands thus compete to attract consumer attention with promises of various welfare add-ons – from “woodland” egg to “happy” hens. But what difference do these provisions really make to a hen’s wellbeing? And are the big brands really best placed to decide?

Pressure to save on costs is also pushing some free-range and organic producers into ever larger economies of scale, says Susie Macmillian. And while the UK’s major retailers have committed to becoming cage free by 2025, they have not yet specified what will replace caged eggs as the value option.

Taken together, these trends suggest an urgent need for new ways of evaluating hen wellbeing.

EU categories currently divide eggs into four levels -  colony (caged), barn-produced, free-range and organic - and each level entails higher welfare standards than the last.  With free-range hens, for instance, there must be no more than nine birds in a square metre, while for organic hens it is no more than six.

But what about hens who enjoy roomier conditions but not the organic diet? At present there is no independently certified "free-range plus" to help distinguish such cases. The RSPCA Assured label (previously known as freedom Foods) ensures that hens' welfare has met standards above the legal minimum. Yet in an effort to help lift all hens out of the caged-sector, it is also very inclusive. In fact it currently covers almost all of the non-caged market.

Yet a sunny-side is in sight for further independent certification.  The Soil Association has already added an extra layer of conditions that organic producers must meet to gain its seal of approval: from free-range conditions for pullets (young hens), to smaller colony sizes, more pop-holes, and a ban on beak tipping. And some European welfare bodies have introduced new, multi-tiered systems of independent assessment across the cage-free spectrum. In Holland, the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals awards its “Beter Leven” (Better Life) seal on a rising scale of one to three stars.

So could a similar system be introduced for UK free-range?  The RSPCA is not currently considering tiering its mark but the possibility for further differentiation in the future does exist. The RSPCA already conducts “welfare outcome assessments,” says Mia Fernyhough, who writes the RSPCA’s standards for laying hens. These take into account indicators of birds’ comfort  – such as their levels of feather cover - and allow assesors to place each individual farm on a sliding scale of success.

More streaming within free-range could also benefit farmers. According to Ben Pike of Bfrepa, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, producers fear that if free-range becomes the norm, they will lose the small price differentiation that has kept them afloat.

The present flu crisis is expected to recede by April, and when it does the biggest welfare gap will still be between caged and non-caged hens. But if consumers are to help British egg prodcution continue to improve in sickness and in health, then more ambitious independent certification should be top of the pecking order.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.