Late last year, Sony was comprehensively hacked by a group called the ‘Guardians of Peace’. The company’s inner workings were gutted and thrown into the public eye, with many of the originally private email conversations sparking outrage and debate. One such conversation was between Andrew Gumpert and Amy Pascal, who were discussing the pay of the actors in one of their upcoming blockbuster films. The male actors, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale, were to be paid a significant amount more than their female counterparts, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams: a whole 2% more of the profits each. An ‘American Hustle’ indeed.
Even though it was shocking to the general public, such a revelation wasn’t necessarily surprising. The gender pay gap, i.e. the difference in pay between men and women, is relatively common knowledge. According to the Office of National Statistics, the average hourly pay for women working full-time in the UK in 2012 was £12, while men earned £13.27 an hour.
Enter David Cameron. Riding on the wave of a Tory majority, the Prime Minister announced plans to force large firms to ‘disclose data on the gender pay gap among staff’ in an attempt to eliminate the gender pay gap “within a generation”. Although his time-scale may be a tad naive, the plans overall are unquestionably a step in the right direction – an increase in wage transparency can hardly have a negative effect on the gender pay gap and may force firms to eliminate any institutionalised sexism.
But some people, like Kate Andrews of the Adam Smith Institute, have been publicly criticising the government’s line on the wage gap, controversially claiming that the gap doesn’t actually exist [because of sexism]. Her argument, behind the sensationalised ‘Why the gender pay gap is a myth’ headline in the Spectator, rests predominantly on an interesting statistic: ‘Women between the ages of 22 – 29 earn 1.1 per cent more on average than their male counterparts and women between the ages of 30-39 are also earning more’. The ‘alleged gap’ that the Prime Minister aims to resolve doesn’t actually exist based on gender, but upon lifestyle choices such as raising a family or taking more flexible hours to do so. A gap exists once the potential wage increases earned by sustained full-time work are foregone by the 22-39 year olds, who earn more, by starting a family or making other gender specific lifestyle choices.
Kate’s argument, though, suffers from an inherent hypocrisy – she claims statistics produced by Cameron’s policy will be ‘bogus’ and perpetuate the myth of a gender gap, even though she uses conveniently picked statistics to question its existence altogether. If you look at the full cross-section of full-time pay for women by age, you can see that a gap both precedes and follows her 22-39 year old sexism-free prime time. She claims that women suffer from the traditionally lop-sided burden of childcare, but if that is the only problem, why are 16-17 year olds earning markedly less than equally aged men? It’s much easier to discriminate with promotions than it is with initial salary, and so, if as Kate we’re in the business of wielding hypotheticals to explain away data, it could be the case that 22-29 year old women earn more because the graduate market place is where firms have to hire equally. As time goes on, they can discriminate with promotions because of anticipated maternity leave or pure gender bias and so the pay gap inverts (from 22-29 levels) over time.
Kate refers to evidence that suggests that ‘when men and women follow the same career path in the UK, women tend to out-earn and out-perform men’, linking to a study by the University of Chicago (clue as to the main problem here: study is not on women in the UK). The study is a somewhat isolated look into the careers of female executives, but does indeed conclude that, when you control for background, education and job exits, women may actually be more likely to earn more. However, it recognises the lack of consensus in the study of the gender pay gap – ‘the results on the gender difference within executive management are mixed’. Funnily enough, the study that Kate uses as evidence for an overall argument that the gender pay gap is a consequence of lifestyle choices (mainly childcare), doesn’t attribute occupation exit rates to fertility or childcare (as the female executives are past child-bearing age), but to a higher exit rate for women in general. The study, when evaluating its own findings, admits it is limited to a dataset that ‘comprises only of those [women] who [have] reached these positions’, and that ‘it is still possible that discrimination explains, at least partially, the small fraction of women who join the ranks of executive management in publicly listed firms’. In other words, women may out-perform men when following the same career path (in this one dataset of female executives who aren’t in the UK), but the path may still be at least partially closed to them.
The Adam Smith Institute go a few steps further in an article on their own site from 2014, titled ‘There is no such thing as a gender pay gap’ . Its opening line? ‘Actually, there is a gender pay gap, but the entirety of it is determined by legitimate factors – things which make men’s and women’s labour different’. Ben Southwood, the author of the article, benevolently claims that ‘this is not necessarily a bad thing, since childcare seems to contribute to mothers’ well-being and happiness’ (my mum passes on her thanks), before spectacularly concluding that we may as well live with the gender wage gap because otherwise we’d have to revolutionise the societal norms of childcare. There may be no point, he claims, as it ‘may not necessarily raise total social welfare’. This is raw idiocy – an idealistic utilitarian argument that, extrapolated, justifies not abolishing slave ownership if the owners are having a good enough time.
As the New Statesman point out in a (possibly tad insensitive) article on ‘childless’, powerful women, the archaic choice between family and career is still prevalent. The Adam Smith Institute is right about the opportunity cost (in wages) of maternity leave, but fails to see that the lop-sided parental pressure is a form of sexism in itself. Procreation tends to involve both men and women, yet the ‘lifestyle choices’ available and who is encouraged to take them are fundamentally different for the sexes. This is inequality; this is systemic, societal sexism.
Carefully planned paternity leave policies are a good method to try and gradually reduce our society’s double standards when it comes to childcare. Sweden were the entrepreneurs of such attempts – 90% of Swedish fathers take paternity leave – and, after Germany emulated the Swedish model in 2007, the share of fathers who took paid leave skyrocketed from 3% to 20% in two years. Britain, too, has introduced its own paternity leave scheme as of this year, and it will hopefully experience the same success as that of Germany.
What policies like this need, in tandem, is social awareness and activism. We should realise that when women taking a disproportionate amount of the childcare burden stems from our own traditions and our continuation of them, the gender pay gap is our fault and our task to fix. Equalising and encouraging the options available to prospective fathers and mothers will help to undo it, as will enforced wage transparency. Denying its existence won’t.
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Bobby Gardiner is a writer and student at Durham University. Very much still learning his trade, he publishes original writing, political commentary and more general pieces on his personal blog (www.bobbygardiner.me). Find him on Twitter: @BobbyGardiner.
This article was edited by Kiri Kankhwende
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