By Antonia Sudkaemper
“The gender pay gap is completely due to women’s decisions to stay at home with the children.”
A myriad of myths surrounding the gender pay gap exists, or -wait- was the pay gap a myth in itself? Admittedly, the concept is somewhat confusing considering that paying different wages for the same position is legally prohibited. This form of very blatant pay inequality fortunately happens a lot less now than a few decades ago when employed women were openly and legally paid less than men when doing the same work. (However, it is still happening and on a large scale; remember Jennifer Lawrence who just recently declared that she no longer wanted to be nice if that implied her receiving a lower pay than her male colleagues.) Let me try to explain why the gender pay gap is not a myth and why women’s frequent decision to stay at home plays a role, but certainly does not capture the whole story.
When ascribing the pay gap to women’s decisions a question inevitably arises: Why on earth would so many women voluntarily opt for low power positions and less pay? Is it because women are less intelligent? Or because they are less driven? Or maybe because they cannot cope with stress as well as men? These explanations seem rather unlikely. Claiming that women, or women together with their male partners, freely decide to stay at home and therefore prioritize having a family over a lucrative career is based on the assumption that men and women are equally encouraged to remain part of the workforce and could expect similar career trajectories if they did. This is not given, however.
Whilst recent research has found that women value careers as much as men, women also estimate their chances of getting ahead as low, relative to the chances of their male partners. This leads women to channel their energy towards other projects, for instance childcare. With the subtle discrimination and institutionalized sexism that women still face at the workplace, the option of not having children and focussing on a career is comparatively less attractive for women than for men. From the economical perspective of a heterosexual couple a stay-at-home mom is just a lot more sensible than a stay-at-home dad. This becomes apparent not only on the long run where men are more likely to succeed occupationally, but already straight after the birth of a child. Even companies that are praised for their valuable gender equality policies grant mothers nine months of paid parental leave, whilst fathers are entitled to a mere two weeks of paid parental leave. Foregoing more than eight months of free childcare is a luxurious choice that only a minute proportion of couples could afford to even consider. Women therefore “decide” to stay at home; it just makes more sense, doesn’t it?
Our society has found very subtle ways of communicating that the sensible choice for women is to care for the children rather than to focus on work; the hugely uneven amount of parental leave is just one example. In their early years, little girls are often encouraged to play with kitchens and dolls, whilst little boys are encouraged to play in more agentic ways. This pattern follows through all way into adulthood. In 2015, my gym features nappy changing facilities in the women’s changing room, but not in the men’s changing room. One of the largest British chains selling children’s equipment is called “mothercare”. The new policy at our university, to hold all meetings between 10am and 3pm, was introduced “so that all women could follow their childcare responsibilities”. Lastly, in a BBC documentary on gender roles all working women were asked, in an almost suggestible way, how guilty they felt about leaving their children at home, whilst strangely no man was assumed to feel guilty for leaving his children at home.
While these influences are at play, it is hardly reasonable to talk of a woman’s free decision to have children instead of a career. Only when there are no more gendered expectations will it be fair to compare men’s and women’s decisions on this topic. My guess is that the gender pay gap will be a lot smaller at a point when equal opportunities are available to all genders.
- Esplen, E., & Brody, A. (2007). Putting Gender Back in the Picture: Rethinking Women’s Economic Empowerment. Report prepared at the request of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
- The American Association of University Women (2015). The simple truth about the gender pay gap. Washington, DC, US: Author.
- BBC documentary: The trouble with working women
If you enjoyed reading this and/or liked to learn about the topic of gender equality, watch out for next week’s post discussing the quote “I think the whole gender equality issue is essentially a non-discussion, because the whole basis and beauty of the opposite genders is that they’re not equal (but opposite), yin and yang, the basis of nature and anyone who denies that must be out of his mind.”.
Antonia Sudkaemper is a PhD student at the university of Exeter. Her research focuses on gender equality. You can learn more about Antonia on her website, www.antoniasudkaemper.com , or by following her on twitter, @ASudkaemper.