The Gender Pay Gap Begins At Home
“Women have the right to work wherever they want to- as long as they have dinner ready when you get home.”
So said American actor John Wayne, in what may have actually been a progressive statement in his heyday. Most of the world has made strides to move away from such misogynist thinking. A woman’s right to work is now largely unquestioned in most countries. Laws outlawing pay discrimination have been in force for decades in the West.
Yet a gender pay gap still exists. Women earn about 15% less than men on average in OECD countries (a club of the richest economies), and about half of men’s wages globally. This gap is wider still for women who are racial or ethnic minorities. Women are also less likely to receive promotions and raises, and vastly underrepresented in leadership positions both economically and politically.
State Of The Glass Ceiling
There has been progress on equalizing pay, due in large part to huge gains in educational attainment among women over the last four decades. In most high-income countries, a woman working in the same position at the same employer now earns about 98 cents to the man’s dollar. According to the Pew Research Center, the gender gap, 83 percent of men’s wages in the US as a whole, narrows to 90 percent among 25–34 year olds.
However, the gap has been persistent, and the rate at which this disparity is decreasing is slowing, despite widespread awareness and efforts to address this. The International Labor Organization estimates that it will take more than 70 years to realize “equal pay for equal work.” Broadly, there are two reasons for this, and both are beyond the scope of what any equal pay laws or awareness campaigns can address.
The first reason has to do with the historic, systemic bias against women prevalent in labor markets. Despite rising equality in educational attainment, women have tended to congregate to specific fields. For example, in the US, the top four professions for women are nursing, administrative work, other healthcare work, and teaching. All of these industries are at least 80 percent female.
This has been due as much to cultural pressure on women to take on care-giving work, as it is on an environment in many male-dominated industries that remains exclusionary to women. Industries which are female dominated are often lower paid and offer fewer opportunities for promotion. Some of this is due to the nature of the work, but also to a structural devaluation of work done by women, as research has consistently shown that median pay for positions goes down when more women are in that particular field.
Mom Or Boss? You Can’t Be Both
Another major reason for the persistence of the gender gap has to do with starting a family. Even in the most progressive countries, women are often forced to forego career advancement in favor of having a child. Such a choice usually comes right around the time one is up for their first promotion, so the relatively narrower gender gap among younger workers may expand as women in this cohort begin to make this decision.
A survey conducted by the Economist and YouGov in a sampling of high-income countries found that 44–75 percent of women with children scaled back their professional careers after becoming mothers, either by working less, taking on a less demanding job, or taking a job closer to home. The decision to do so often leads to a decrease in earnings long term.
While some women chose to forego work in favor of taking care of children willingly, this decision is often not so simple. In the US, which is one of the only countries in the world which does not provide guaranteed maternal leave, women often have little choice but to leave work once they have a child. Women that do return to work, often do so very soon after birth, particularly if they are poor. One study found that one-quarter of women only took less than two weeks off before returning to work.
Even in more egalitarian societies, women may face societal pressure to be a caregiver instead of, or sometimes in addition to, a financial provider. Paid childcare is also often prohibitively expensive, which raises the cost to a family of a woman going back into the labor force after having a child.
Where’s The Dad In All Of This??
The fact that this conversation centers solely around mothers is rather indicative of a major underlying problem: men are never thought of as caretakers, and so do not need to make similar decisions. The same Economist/YouGov survey found only 13–37 percent of men scaled back their work hours after having a child.
Globally, men are not expected to be caregivers, and so do not undertake such tasks at home as much as women do. Many cultures place little value in encouraging men to help out in child rearing. Too often, men taking care of their own children is thought of as “babysitting” instead of parenting. Such attitudes are compounded by media portrayals of fathers as clueless dopes when it comes to childcare:
As a result, care work falls overwhelmingly on the shoulders of women. The 2017 State of the World’s Fathers report — published by MenCare, a campaign promoting equitable care-giving and produced by Promundo, an organization that works to engage men and boys to be partners in the pursuit of gender justice — estimates that women spend 3x more time doing unpaid care work (broadly defined by the UN as housework and time spent taking care of people in one’s home) than men. This varies across regions, with women in high-income countries performing about twice the unpaid care work of men, while women in South Asia performing as much 6.5x what men contribute.
Combined with paid work, the report finds that women stand to work as much as five and a half extra years over a fifty-year span. The added burden of unpaid care work isn’t just physical and time-consuming, but also entails managing the emotional and logistical needs of the entire family, an often overlooked and undervalued aspect of care-giving, and one in which men are particularly deficient. All of this combined not only contributes to reduced wages for women, but also has detrimental effects to their physical, emotional, mental, and reproductive health.
Happy (And Better Paid) Wife, Happy Life
Increasing women’s participation and pay therefore necessitates creating a more equal distribution of household duties and care work. This cannot be done without engaging men to be more equitable partners in care-giving. This is not an easy task, as it entails challenging entrenched gender norms that often portray manhood as a complete anathema to performing household work or providing care for others.
There has been progress on increasing the amount of care work men do. Broadly speaking, men are doing more childcare work than their fathers. However, progress is insufficient. Men also seem to overstate their contributions to childcare, and understate their partners’. In a separate Economist/YouGov poll, men were found to be two to three times less likely than women to think that the majority of household work was done by women, and more likely to think duties were split equally.
More equitable households will require more than some (much needed) conversations among partners. The State of the World’s Fathers report outlines an action plan with concrete policies to address this disparity. One approach the report recommends is to make potential fathers be more skilled and willing to be caregivers via parent training. Such trainings must reinforce the fact that care-giving is not inherently women’s work, in addition to providing new fathers with the opportunity to learn and practice skills needed to be a beneficial participant in their child’s lives. They must also be coupled with a change in attitude among healthcare and social service workers to recognize men as equal partners in care-giving. When done correctly, the report cites that such trainings not only make better fathers, but reduce intimate partner violence and violence against children as well.
At a national level, the biggest policy measure necessary to make families and workplaces more equitable is increasing parental leave. One year of maternity leave on its own boosts women’s employment. However, paternal leave, which is either not offered or very short in most countries, adds further benefits. First, it will incentivize men to put time into unpaid care work. Currently, men not only ask for less time off for such activities but are also more likely to be dissuaded or rejected from doing so by their employers.
There may also be added benefits to women directly: in Sweden, women’s future income was found to go up by 7 percent for every month of paternity leave taken by her spouse. The State of the World’s Fathers report stipulates that parental leave be: equal for women and men; non-transferable between parents, paid according to parents’ salary; no less than 16 weeks for each parent; come with job protections; encouraged and incentivized; inclusive for workers and couples of all kinds; combined with subsidized childhood education; and enshrined into national law.
Additionally, the provision of adequate childcare would go a long way to creating more equitable households and workplaces. In addition to freeing up women’s time, they would also create more workplaces in the childcare industry. Such childcare can be government-subsidized but needn’t be. Many companies are starting to see the benefits of providing child care to their employees. For example, Patagonia — which offers a comprehensive child care program on its campus, allowing parents more time with their children — found that the benefits they receive in employee morale and retention outweighed the costs.
Taken together, such policies would not only pay for themselves but make money in the long term. The report estimates $28 trillion would be added to global GDP if women were equally represented in labor markets. Moreover, efforts to create equitable households are self-sustaining, as children would then learn from the examples of their parents and adopt more equitable practices for future generations to come.
If such arguments do not persuade the overwhelmingly male political class to take action, maybe this will: research also shows that couples who divvy up household work equally have the best sex lives. Happy wife, happy life indeed.