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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.