Stop boring on about babies – the gender pay gap isn't about "choice"

As the pay gap narrows for women in their twenties, some suggest the real factor is the decision to have children. But why are we placing that burden on women?

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Bought a coffee on the way into work? Feeling bad about having immediately broken your new year’s resolution? Well, maybe you needn’t worry too much – because there’s some good news for women: the Resolution Foundation has published findings suggesting that the gender pay gap is down to 5% for workers in their twenties.

Exciting, hey? Think of all those extra flat whites – I mean, deposits into your pension scheme – you can buy with that. And, with the pay gap squeezing shut for younger women, surely there are good things to come as our generation gets older.

Well. Not necessarily. Because, even though women graduates are now cashing pay checks with numbers closer to their male peers’ than ever before, the report also suggests that women will still earn significantly less over a lifetime as the gap widens after age 30. Happy New Year, ladies! 

Not surprisingly, the usual chorus has begun to sound, reminding us that actually this is something women choose for themselves. You see, the pay gap is influenced by the decision to have children. A 2016 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, for instance, found that the pay gap really ramps up in the 12 years after a woman has her first child, dumping her out the other end earning 33% less than men. Surely, the choice is simple. Want more money? Don’t have babies.

Sadly, it's not so simple. Putting the pay gap down to just “choice” is to read the world – and women’s lives – in disturbingly limited terms. True, it’s easy to think of having children as being a personal decision someone makes, especially if you’re not so keen on the idea yourself. But it’s not the full picture.

The fact is, the raising of children is socially necessary labour – i.e. if you don’t do it, someone else has to. And it isn’t only about the continuation of the species. As the number of people living beyond the age of 65 soars, our society must urgently address the care needs of older people. Part of that is figuring out who will provide services, from nursing to technological development, for that ageing population. Want to make sure there’ll be someone sprightly enough to get you out of bed in the care home? Then you’d better hope people keep having kids.

Viewed this way, taking the time off from paid labour to raise children isn’t an indulgence – although anyone who has wiped shit off an infant’s back could have told you that, anyway. It’s necessary work that benefits everyone.

But why, then, should companies compensate for it? Surely if it benefits everyone, it should be the responsibility of the state.

Well, partially. That’s why we have things like a childcare allowance, however meagre, and child benefits — although those also exist because we are a welfare state, and don’t believe in infants going hungry, however financially fragile their parents’ lives are. Yet companies also benefit from the unpaid or low-paid labour women undertake to raise children. 

If you want to understand why it’s the responsibility of companies to compensate for maternity leave and child-rearing, all you have to do is try rephrasing the maternity pay gap thus: “men often get a pay bonus for the extra years they can work while women give birth to and raise their children”.

Family homes with children still make up the largest portion of households in Britain, so let’s consider an achingly stereotypical one, in which the mother takes several years out of work to get her children through nursery and into school, at age five. Her partner may take shared parental leave during the early part of that period – but, well, most men still don’t, and these are stereotypes, so let’s say he goes straight back to work.

While his partner is at home, spending her days dealing with all the highs (smiles, first words) and lows (industrial quantities of poo) of parenting, his career continues almost uninterrupted. His employer does not have to find, hire and train cover staff; nobody e-mails him when they should be e-mailing the new person; projects don’t unravel in the confusion – and so on. In short, it saves them cash.

His partner, meanwhile, will eventually scrub the last bit of mashed potato off her cardigan, accept she’ll never get that felt tip pen out of her boots, and trot back to work, where her lower earnings will be framed as a “choice” she has made.

Obviously, this situation is not ideal. For a start, plenty of men would like it to be more socially acceptable to also enjoy the smile-poo rollercoaster of parenting alongside their partners, preferably without the financial complications that come with having to choose whose career should take a bigger hit. (Bonus factor: in some fields, women take more of a career hit for having children than men, even before we get to time taken out of work. Try reading “The Motherhood Penalty vs. The Fatherhood Bonus” if you fancy a scream.)

More than that, though, it is obviously unfair for women to be penalised for doing work that benefits not only, well, generally everyone, but specifically employers.

So what can we do? Well, we could try putting up tube posters telling men that shared parental leave is really cool. But really, companies just need to step up. In 2018, companies with more than 250 employees will have to start making their pay gap statistics public. To me, it sounds like a great deadline for salary parity across your business.

And as for us ordinary citizens? Well, my recommendation is simple: stop using the word “choice”.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.