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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.