ONS data show that the average wage earned by a woman in 2013 was 19.7% lower than that of a man. Given that it has been forty years since the Equal Pay Act came into force, this is a shocking and somewhat absurd statistic. Naturally, the disparity in earnings between men and women leads us to the swift conclusion that something is very wrong in the working world. However, we should ignore this headline figure and look more closely at the evidence to understand what exactly is happening to women in the workplace, and why their earning potential is nowhere near on equal terms with men.
The gender pay gap between men and women in their twenties is small – with the average male earning a 5% wage premium. Though small, this disparity is still surprising, since most people of this age are likely to be working full-time, with a similar amount of experience. One might indeed wonder how, with the multitude of stories reporting how girls routinely out-perform boys in exams, and the number of female university graduates exceeding that of male, there is not instead a swing in the opposite direction – with women earning more than men in this age range.
The statistics tell an even more interesting tale when the working population reaches its mid-thirties. The gender pay gap increases to 28% in the range of 35-45 year olds. Quite astonishingly, it leaps by more than ten percentage points just from the age of 34 to 35 years old, from 6.3% to 16.9%.
The most obvious conclusion that we can draw from this is that women face huge barriers to re-entering their career following the birth of their children. This may be due to lost work experience, including missing on-the-job training, having to give up clients or accounts to colleagues and competitors, and losing out on promotion opportunities while on maternity leave. Further to this, the burden of childcare falls, more often than not, on mothers and not fathers. Even if a family has adequate childcare arrangements, it is likely to be the mother who has to cut back hours at work in order to pick up her children at a reasonable time, or take a day or two off work if a child falls ill.
Eliminating the gender pay gap entirely may never be possible, due simply to the fact that only women are capable of child birth. However, there are measures that could be taken to ensure that it is only by choice that women decide to devote more of their time to their families than to their careers. We have to address the stark fact that childcare in the UK now costs 40% of the average salary, resulting in families choosing to have one parent stay at home, when they might prefer to work elsewhere. Deregulating the childcare industry would be a first step in bringing down costs (an issue that will be addressed in a forthcoming CPS report), but a change of attitude is also needed to even out the responsibilities of caring for children and other family members. A woman’s career has to be recognised as equally important as a man’s - it shouldn’t automatically fall to the mother to make sacrifices for the sake of her family when the father could just as easily spend more time at home.
In addition to this, companies should take measures to help women who want to stay in touch with their office while on maternity leave to do so, and encourage splitting maternity and paternity leave for families who choose to do so. Women and their partners deserve the chance to decide for themselves how best to look after their children. Women should not be pressured into disregarding their career ambitions just because they’re a parent - in other words women should be free to choose.