Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
29 August 2016

Want to solve the pay gap? Let’s call childcare “training“

A discussion about women's "choice" gets us nowhere. Caring labour should be supported by the state.

By Helen Lewis

Does the gender pay gap exist? The Prime Minister thinks so, and said as much in her first speech outside Downing Street: “If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.” So did her predecessor, who pledged to “end the pay gap in a generation”. So does the women and equalities select committee, which released a report into the phenomenon in March. (Before you start, there are also two male MPs on the committee, equipped with testicles of objectivity.) According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, women on average now 
earn 18 per cent less an hour than men.

Case closed. But unfortunately the statistics show a more complicated picture – and demonstrate why this is such an intractable political problem. For example, the pay gap is not the same as campaigns for equal pay – the idea that a job should attract the same wages, whether it’s done by men or women. From the start, there were sneaky ways to get around this. The 1968 strike among the female sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant was triggered by a decision to classify their work as less skilled than other factory jobs – which just happened to be occupied overwhelmingly by men.

The same thing is happening on a grander scale across the economy. Women aren’t innately attracted to less prestigious jobs: jobs become less prestigious when their workforce is majority female. Think how teaching’s reputation changed as we moved from harsh schoolmasters to caring teachers, or how we use the word “chefs” to distinguish them from mere cooks, who (in the home) are more likely to be women.

The process also happens in reverse. Computer programming was once dominated by women, essentially before anyone realised how hard it was. They were seen as glorified typists and secretaries – the job was “just like planning a dinner”, a female programmer told Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1960s. But something changed. “As the intellectual challenge of writing efficient code became apparent, employers began to train men as computer programmers,” writes Brenda D Frink of Stanford University, California. “Rather than equating programming with clerical work, employers now compared it to male-stereotyped activities such as chess-playing or mathematics.” To remake it into a man’s world, employers relied on entry tests that privileged those with formal maths training, professional associations that excluded women, and personality profiling skewed towards men.

If women’s jobs pay less partly because they are women’s jobs, no wonder it’s so difficult to bridge the pay gap. It is the same as women’s speech – any trait that is stereotypically associated with women is regarded as aberrant, in need of correction. As the linguist Deborah Cameron noted in a discussion of whether women say sorry too much (a claim for which there is no empirical evidence), we rely on a “deficit model” of female language use. “The alternative interpretation – that men are underusing ‘sorry’ because they don’t always apologise when the circumstances demand it – is surely no less logical or plausible, but somehow it never comes up.” As she puts it: “A woman’s place is in the wrong.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Broadly, this indicates that telling more women to enter male-dominated fields to address the pay gap won’t work: as soon as those fields lose their male dominance, they lose their prestige. That’s something junior doctors and GPs might want to bear in mind whenever they negotiate with Jeremy Hunt.

The other way that women just can’t win in the pay gap discussion is what I think of as the argumentum ad biologam. (Sorry, Latin scholars – do write in!) Statistics show that the pay gap is largely a motherhood gap: women in full-time work in their twenties don’t lag behind their male peers. Yet after 30, both women with children and those whose employers just assume they might have children lose out. The first group gets really screwed: “Women with teenage children have hourly earnings about one-third less than men at a similar point in their life cycle,” says Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Mothers take time off, or move to part-time work, and miss out on promotions and pay rises.

There has long been hope that women’s increasing academic achievement would solve the pay gap. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. I take grim amusement from watching anti-feminists contend with the fact girls are now far more likely to go to university than boys – because it has convinced them that any discrepancies in achievement between the sexes cannot, after all, be attributed to innate differences. There must be structural causes.

What this means, though, is that we have a twentysomething cohort where women are better educated, and we are still going to promote men ahead of them in their thirties and forties because they happen to be in the office at the time. This is silly.

The “motherhood gap” seems like a trump card for those who want to pay only lip-service to equality, because it’s a perfect excuse to lean back, fold your arms and say – sorry, ladies. Them’s the breaks. Should have thought about all of this before you went off the Pill, shouldn’t you?

It should instead be the starting point of a conversation about how we structure the workplace and our working lives. Caring is labour, and caring for children can also be seen as training the workers of the future: they won’t be able to pay our pensions if they can’t use a potty or reliably use a fork. Parents are essentially running intensive apprenticeship schemes in their own homes, imparting vital workplace skills such as putting on your trousers the right way round.

Biology is non-negotiable; at least for now. So let’s treat childcare with the respect it deserves, stop seeing women’s work as inevitably lesser and make the state take more responsibility for supporting parents. 

This article appears in the 24 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser