It was never time to peddle the gender pay gap narrative – and it still isn’t. Its causes are too complex to be trivialised and temporal flexibility should be celebrated.
Everyone has stumbled across the frequent headlines regarding the gender pay gap. Attacking its supposed persistence seems to be an obsession of journalists, politicians and those who cling onto social injustices to the extent they have to manufacture them.
First of all, it is noteworthy that the gender pay gap in Britain is the lowest on record. From 28% in 1993 to 23% in 2003, it today stands at around 18%. Second of all, it is more noteworthy that whatever the percentage point of the gap is, it is irrelevant to policy. Constantly discussing the pay gap raises pressure and consequent unwelcome state interference in response to a statistic that is almost a non-issue.
Last month, the rhetoric around pay inequality crept back into the news with Deloitte’s research claiming that the gender pay gap will not be closed until 2069. As if it needs to be. As Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist whose research interests include gender wage differentials, puts it:
“If you take women who don’t have caregiving obligations, they’re almost equal with men.”
Regardless of the number of myth-busting articles that accumulate year on year, attributing the gender pay gap to some form of societal discrimination or systemic injustice has remained a bizarre pastime. Simply put, proponents of this myth are wrong.
However, disregarding this myth, even the many who acknowledge its true factors demand that the gap is closed. Despite the great increases in female labour force participation and pay, we are still unhappy that an overall discrepancy can be found in pay between males and females and apparently cannot comprehend that the two different genders would on average make different life choices.
The 18 percent gap, of which we are constantly informed, constitutes choices made by women. A look into the facts shows that after childbirth, women tend to opt for less high-paid work, fewer hours and more temporal flexibility – that is flexible working hours and contractual agreements with employers. All of these, and inevitably more, equate to less time spent working, as opposed to male counterparts, on average. Given this, it is surely more natural and ‘fair’ (an overused word in policy but I shall use it nonetheless) that women overall will earn below that 100 percent benchmark those working longer reap. Twenty years after the birth of their first child, women have been in paid work for four years less than men and have spent nine fewer years in paid work of more than 20 hours per week.
The concept of inequality is unfairly applied to gender and wages, where childbirth and overwhelmingly being the primary source of child-rearing are an obvious exclusivity to one and not the other of the genders.
Indeed, many sources tell us that childless women do in fact earn the same as their male counterparts, and women aged 22-29 have been found to earn more than men of their age group.
Females’ average pay could theoretically be higher than males’ at some point in the future, given educational or other factors, and if it were, we would not (or at least should not) be calling for policy intervention to resolve it being too high. Did you know that female IT & telecoms directors currently earn an average £63,300 annual salary compared to £60,200 for men? And that women who are senior police officers make £59,800 a year, ahead of £57,700 for their male counterparts? My guess is that you do not – partly because it would not correspond well with the juicy narrative we are fed, that women are victims of something which we must rectify.
Since the overall ‘gender’ pay gap is more of an experience and sector pay gap, we should be sceptical about why it should be something to be ‘solved’ as politicians like to advocate. The number of times Hillary Clinton, an expert in pigeonholing women, has vowed to bring about equal pay almost equals that of her lost emails.
Preaching about the crime of the gender pay gap is scarily not too distant from saying that raising children is merely a financial burden to bemoan. It should however be celebrated. Furthermore, we can interpret some of it as a success of temporal flexibility, whereby a mother today is more likely to be able to work whichever hours she chooses and more likely guaranteed that work in her respective field. Workplaces are accommodating post-maternity-leave staff members’ choices better than ever, offering them the full-time work they may seek or the part-time work that so often contributes to this gender pay gap.
Encouraging females to keep entering underrepresented industries is of course still a valid ambition but we must acknowledge that males and females will tend to (again, on average only) have different career instincts as long as females are the ones giving birth to and raising children.
The same Deloitte survey exploited by many to repeat the platitude that the gender pay gap is a dark enemy of our time also finds that the difference in hourly pay between men and women in full-time work was closing.
As well as this, it also itself acknowledges that the UK’s 9.4% gender pay gap for full-time workers is complex:
“Factors include women being more likely to take jobs where pay is relatively low, such as in care; women taking time out for family reasons; and women taking more poorly paid part-time jobs when they return from raising a young child.”
Perhaps if the matter was framed in a way that encouraged taking time to read the actual reports otherwise used as outrage fodder, workers would find reasonable evidence that all is well. Analysing pay gaps by degree qualifications rather than by occupation does indeed reinforce this by showing that there was no difference in the average starting salary between male and female graduates of engineering, technology and many other STEM professions.
Should the focus then simply be on encouraging more girls to consider STEM subjects and not on attempting to close a gap that is a result of women’s rightful choices? Seeing as we love choice in every other sphere, why not also applaud this personal choice of hours and variety of labour?
This does indeed seem to be the much-loved solution by government and research institutes alike and, this year, 12,500 more girls sat A-levels in STEM subjects compared to 2010. We can encourage the trend optimistically, instead of crying ‘discrimination’ or ‘patriarchy’ when in a free country it is good news that mothers who want to work part-time, flexibly and perhaps even in less-salary competitive industries can do so. As Goldin also asserts, there are:
“many experiments on the fact that women don’t necessarily like competition as much as men do — they value temporal flexibility, men value income growth — that there are various differences”
The reasons behind the gender pay gap cannot be neatly summed up in a line, and it is not hard to see that it is not something that will be closed through government policy. This serves the conclusion that the politicisation of pay must end. Framing non-discriminatory pay differences between groups as an issue to tackle demeans genuine discriminatory issues that are not simply side effects of nature and choice. Whereas certain policy proposals do not appear overbearing, the creeping presence of governmental forces around private sector pay could be at least marginally detrimental to a Britain that, especially now, requires a business-attracting environment instead of one that seeks strict uniformity, allies with identity politics and dwells in needless controversy. The gender pay gap is not our enemy — and placing private sector pay in the sphere of public policy is not our friend.