To close the gender pay-gap we need a family-friendly work culture

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The gender pay-gap has many causes. One of the most obvious is children. Studies of married couples in the US show a sudden widening of the pay gap with the birth of a first child.

Clair Cain Miller of the New York Times explains:

“Immediately after the first birth, the pay gap between spouses doubles, according to a recent study — entirely driven by a drop in the mother’s pay. Men’s wages keep rising. The same pattern shows up in a variety of research.”

This occurs even in those countries that offer and encourage parental (including paternal) leave.

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What appears to be less universal is whether or not the pay gap between spouses closes up again. According to Cain Miller a key factor is the age at which women have children:

“When women have their first child between age 25 and 35, their pay never recovers, relative to that of their husbands. Yet women who have their first baby either before 25 or after 35 — before their careers get started or once they’re established — eventually close the pay gap with their husbands.

“The years between 25 to 35 happen to be both the prime career-building years and the years when most women have children.”

An increasing number of companies have ‘returnship’ programmes to help women resume careers after having children. But perhaps businesses could also do more to adapt themselves to family life, not just the other way round:

“…the modern economy requires time in the office and long, rigid hours across a variety of jobs — yet pay gaps are smallest when workers have some control over when and where work gets done. In high-earning jobs, hours have grown longer and people are expected to be available almost around the clock. In low-earning jobs, hours have become much less predictable, so it can be hard for working parents to arrange child care.”

Though often treated as discrete ‘women’s issues’, the persistence of the pay-gap and barriers to career resumption cannot be separated from wider dysfunctions in the modern workplace – such as ageism in promotion practices, the long-hours culture and the intrusion electronic workplace communication into home life.

In a 2015 article for the Harvard Business Review, Erin Reid wrote about her research into high-pressure work environments. She found that both men and women felt “overworked and underfamilied”, but that while women tended to formally request shorter/more flexible hours (at the risk of setbacks to career advancement), men were more likely to subvert the system surreptitiously:

“…many men found unobtrusive, under-the-radar ways to alter the structure of their work (such as cultivating mostly local clients, or building alliances with other colleagues), such that they could work predictable schedules in the 50 to 60 hour range. In doing so, they were able to work far less than those who fully devoted themselves to work, and had greater control over when and where those hours were worked, yet were able to ‘pass’ as ideal workers, evading penalties for their noncompliance.”

I like the idea of this covert resistance to the long-hours culture, but it would be better if the psychotic expectation that employees surrender their entire lives to the job didn’t exist in the first place – especially when it discriminates against women.

At the other end of the daily commute, we also need to examine the impact of housing policy. If affordable family homes aren’t available within a reasonable distance of the best jobs – then that too will prove especially problematic for women with children.

This isn’t to suggest that men shouldn’t do more to share the burden of child care and housework; but, again, that’s something facilitated by family-friendly working hours, shorter commutes and not having bedtime stories interrupted by emails from the boss.

Whether in public policy or business practice, support for family life is all too often an afterthought. But as a starting point, we may be surprised by how many other solutions flow from it.

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