Last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) released a report on the gender pay gap. Amongst its findings, it showed that there is a gap between the earnings of men and women in 80% of clearly defined occupations.
The report attributed the gap, in large part, to seniority. This is unsurprising: in most sectors, men occupy the most senior positions and therefore have higher salaries. The proposed solutions of the IPPR, though, are surprising: Catherine Colebrook, IPPR chief economist and co-author of the report, said in the Guardian, “In short, men need to work fewer hours and women need to work more.”
Let’s unpack the idea that women working more will address the gender pay gap.
Women, on the whole, earn less than men because structural and institutional factors hold them back. Working conditions, stigma, and prevalent social perceptions of parenting and domestic work all contribute to women not seeing true workplace equality, thus preventing many women from advancing in their careers. The IPPR helpfully identifies seniority as the key driver of pay disparity, but the idea of working more doesn’t scratch the surface of this problem.
Social and economic factors
Proposing that women work more is simply not feasible. Many women are the sole or primary caregiver for children and elderly relatives in their families. In 2015, women provided 74% of total unpaid childcare. They juggle the so-called ‘second shift’ along with making ends meet. Women tend to work in lower-paid sectors and, within those sectors, are rarely at the top of the employee hierarchy. As a result, women are more likely than men to fall below the poverty threshold. Many working women who live on the breadline and raise a family cannot work any more than they do. To suggest otherwise points to privilege and ignorance, and closing the gender pay gap should be about all women, not just those with management aspirations.
Further, cultural and social norms sadly still dictate that parenting and domestic responsibilities fall to women. Even Hillary Clinton, a powerful woman with a long-standing career, plays into this game, assuming the expected domestic mantle in order to appeal to the public. Women are packaged into domestic roles and thus their careers suffer. For example, women with children are less likely to work than women without children, whereas the opposite is true for men.
Given than women take on the majority of care work, they often have to take periods of extended leave. It is wholly expected that men will return to work full-time after the birth of a child; the same cannot be said for women (rather, women who choose not to care full-time for their offspring are often vilified and painted as ‘bad mothers’). Re-entering the workforce after time off is notoriously difficult and has a damaging impact on women’s career prospects and pay. Bias (whether conscious or unconscious) dictates that women returning to work after having children are seen as unreliable or uncommitted to the company because they have other priorities, and periods of leave let women slip off the radar as their peers advance. They re-enter the workforce at a financial and professional disadvantage.
What is more, the gender pay gap is a vicious cycle. It must not be forgotten that when a heterosexual couple make the decision that one parent take time off to care for a child or family member, the most financially sensible option is often for the male partner to remain in work and for the woman to scale back her career. The childcare that would enable many women to return to work sooner is not affordable for all, nor is it always desirable. Addressing the gender pay gap, then, is not as simple as ‘women need to work more’. They quite often can’t.
What should we do?
For women to see pay equality, conditions need to be in place that will enable them to balance family and work. Flexible working options - from part-time to teleworking - are important, as are proper parental leave packages. The advance of technology means that in many sectors there is no reason to tie face time intrinsically to work anymore. Affordable childcare and in-house childcare are a priority, and organisations need to ensure that women re-entering the workforce are not disadvantaged. These are the areas in which we should focus our efforts.
The above-mentioned issues will only be resolved when domestic work no longer disproportionately falls to women. Most importantly, therefore, men need to step up in the home so that a more equal distribution of domestic and professional work is possible. This requires removing social stigma, but also ensuring that work-life balance options are available to men and that men are actively encouraged to make use of them. Career counselling and the use of role models are measures that are currently being tested in this regard. Childcare should not be a woman’s domain.
The solutions to the gender pay gap lie in addressing these deep-rooted social norms and structural problems. Women don’t work ‘less’ than men because they are lazy and don’t want to step up, and suggesting that they are complicit in their own salarial inequality does them a severe injustice.
Finally, it is worth contemplating why such an approach to gender equality is even desirable. Why should women want to work more, when so much of the work they already do is unpaid labour? In our permanently-connected world, succumbing to the ever-greater volumes of work expected of the modern workforce is not especially compatible with self-care or family. This approach is centred on capitalist individualism, and is of the Sheryl Sandberg Lean In variety: the onus is on individual women to do more if they want to be equal to men. Work more, move up the career ladder, lean in. This individualist focus positions each woman for herself and leaves behind those who cannot, or do not want to, work more (usually the women for whom gender issues are compounded with class or racial oppression).
Adopting an individualist approach puts the onus on women and will not achieve the structural, social, and institutional changes for the many that are needed. At the heart of these issues are the questions of responsibility and power that facilitate women’s oppression, and thus we need to move away from individualist responses to inequality and tackle the deeper problems that touch the vast spectrum of women.
Saying that women need to work more does not cut it. We can, and must, do better than that.