Have you seen the hit Netflix series Explained by publishing powerhouse Vox? If you haven’t, you should give it a watch. Delving into a variety of different topics such as ‘Designer DNA’ and ‘Political Correctness’, Explained’s stand out episode: “The gender pay gap” revealed some troubling truths that as a woman, hit very close to home.

It’s no secret that women around the world earn less than men, with the global gender pay gap currently sitting at 23%. That means, for every £1.00 a man makes, a woman makes just 73p. With the UK having one of the worst pay gaps in Europe, it only makes sense to dig a little deeper into the real cause of this problem.

Equal pay for equal work

When you hear about the gender pay gap, you often hear another phrase as well: Equal Pay for Equal Work. But that just sounds like women are paid less for doing the same job as men, which means women are paid less just for being women. And there’s a word for that, Discrimination.

This kind of discrimination dates back to the 19th century when women took on men’s jobs while the men were deployed into the armed forces during WW1. They were doing exactly the same work as men but for much lower wages. This issue of equal pay continued past WW2 and became a common demand by trade unions and women’s organisations starting in the 1950’s.

Almost 50 years ago, the Equal Pay Act was introduced to England. 5 years after that, it was brought to law. Since then, discrimination based on gender has been reduced dramatically, with more women entering the workplace causing a shift in workplace culture — but this discrimination isn’t all gone. It still remains very difficult for women to gain equal pay. A woman has to first find out that she is being paid less than a man in a comparable job, which is tricky considering people are often secretive about how much they are paid.

It’s a cultural thing

Back in the 1950’s, it was normal to believe that women didn’t belong in the workplace. Discrimination was legal. Women weren’t as well educated — with some even foregoing higher-level education altogether. Women were the primary caregivers — taught at school to be homemakers and raise children. Today, 90% of caregivers are female so many women work part time as well as looking after elderly relatives and children.

The women that you did see in professional industries were limited to ‘feminine fields’, like teachers and receptionists and were accorded a different value in wages. These feminine fields are still evident today with over 40% of employees in the health, education and public administration sectors being women, while only 29% of scientists and engineers in the EU are women. But it doesn’t stop there.

Within industries, women are being perceived as less competent or ‘managerial’ which is reflected in promotion rates. Along with salary figures and promotion rates, firms have been required to disclose the differences in bonuses paid to men and to women. The finance sector has the biggest bonus gap, with women paid 35% less than men on average. In other words, sector-wide, for every £1 of bonus money paid to men working in finance, their female colleagues will take home just 65p.

So the gender pay gap can be explained by several interconnected factors like:

  • Lower education rates
  • Lower workforce participation
  • Discrimination
  • Grouping into “feminine industries”

And a slew of cultural norms about gender roles and aptitudes.

  • Women can’t hold power
  • Women should be homemakers
  • Women should raise children
  • Women less intelligent

But now, in today’s world, many of the factors causing the gender pay gap have shrunk, except for one. Women should raise children.

The tale of the gap

Let’s look at a young couple, just starting out in their career as an example. They look the same, have the same experience and the same educational record. They’re hired for the same role and progress up the career ladder at the same pace, but as soon as they hit their childbearing years and start thinking about having children, something changes. 

A child is born, and someone has to be home to care for it. If you can afford it, you’ll get childcare, but a parent needs to be at home for those situations that need a parent. So the mother stays at home and the dad gets a promotion.

The mother has had to turn away the extra work, leave early to pick up the children, and now 8–10 years down the line, the man is now much more senior and can now do a lot more.

But the woman hasn’t. She hasn’t received as many promotions so her salary is lower. She’s working flexibly or even part-time and from there, their earning potentials just keep diverging.

The motherhood penalty

If you compare the earnings of women with kids and women without, you can see that the pay gap isn’t as much about being a woman, as it is about being a mother.

  • Women ages 20–24 earned 96% of what their male colleagues took home.
  • While women ages 25–54 earned 78 to 89% of what their male colleagues took home.
  • At ages 55–64, women took home 74% of what their male colleagues were paid.
  • Each year a mother is absent from the workplace her future wages are reduced by 5%

The expectation remains in society today, with the popular opinion that women shouldn’t work full-time when they have young kids. Surveys today show that 70% of those surveyed think that new fathers should work full-time, but when it comes to women, the expectation flips to under 20% – supporting the idea that mothers should work full time. But some mothers don’t see this as a problem. They want to spend more time with their children. And they don’t mind if that means making less money. Women make that choice.

Men, however, see their careers go on largely unchanged, with dads and non-parents having roughly equal earnings over the following decades. Even when a mother does work full time just like her male partner, she is 2 to 10 times more likely to perform unpaid care work than men. That’s 9 hours a week more than him on childcare and housework. That’s the equivalent of an extra three months of a full-time job.

Follow the leaders

Two countries in the world — Rwanda and Iceland, have almost closed their wage gaps and in just a few decades, so we know closing the gender pay gap is not impossible.

Rwanda is one of the poorest nations on earth and until just a few decades ago, women were denied many basic rights. Women were not allowed to speak in public. Married women were not allowed to open a bank account without the authorisation of their husbands. But in 1994, everything changed. During the Rwandan genocide, 800,000 people were murdered, leaving the Rwandan population at 70% women which completely destroying the social fabric. Rwanda realised that to rebuild their country, they needed women, and immediately implemented a host of new policies aimed at getting more women into positions of power.

Today, Rwandan women hold 61% of the seats in parliament — The highest in the world. They have a labour force participation rate of 88% (men at 87.6{%) and now Rwanda is one of the few countries where women are just as likely as men to work outside the home.

Iceland has also made major strides towards closing the pay gap, but they took a different way towards equality. Back in 1975, women began objecting the gender pay gap with protests and strikes. Without women in their jobs, businesses could not stay open. And it started a huge wave that slowly began changing society.

5 years after the strikes, Iceland voted in the world’s first democratically elected female president and the number of women in parliament then skyrocketed.

In 2000, Iceland enforced the radical use it or lose it paternity leave to reinforce the idea that caregiving is not just for women. So now, men of the youngest generations expect to take time off to take care of their children. And employers can reasonably expect that a young woman or man will take parental leave at some point in their careers.

It’s not a woman’s issue.

The global gender pay gap is at 23%. and the United Nation’s estimates it will take 100 years to close at the current rate of change. No matter how you look at it, a child born tomorrow has no shot at seeing an end to the global pay gap.

As long as we keep reinforcing the stereotype that women should be caregivers and men should be breadwinners, we will never achieve equality. Because the gender pay gap is not a woman’s issue. It’s a family issue.

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