Should the state enforce equal pay for women?

The government wants to tackle the problem of equal pay between men and women. But not everyone agrees that it's going about it in the right way.

Companies with more than 250 employees are to be forced to publish the pay gap between average earnings for male and female staff, which still stands at nearly 20%, following an announcement by David Cameron. The response of some of the employers' organisations was "mealy mouthed", says Andrew Hill in the Financial Times.

The average could be "misleading", said the Confederation of British Industry. Measuring pay gaps is "very complex", said the Institute of Directors. Rules should be flexible, urged the EEF manufacturers' organisation.

Such comments "bear the traces of the lingering, fallacious assumption that because there are multiple explanations" for the pay gap, firms can sort out the problem themselves. Yet it is employers who have created the problem, at job interviews, in pay talks, in maternity leave discussions in "countless back rooms where unconscious bias and outmoded assumptions persist". They need to stop "nit-picking" and act.

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There's a difference between equal pay and average pay, says Melanie Phillips in The Times. Equal pay for equal work has been UK law for decades. The fact that women still earn on average 81p for every pound earned by men is due to various factors, including the fact that women are less likely to work in highly paid careers or advance up the career ladder. The mistake is to assume this is because women are discriminated against. Some "undoubtedly are", but generally it comes down to choice.

Many of those choices are dictated by the difficulty of juggling work with childcare or caring for aged parents. Women are more likely to ask for shorter hours; 41% of female jobs are part-time. Spending fewer years in full-time work drives down women's average pay.

Cameron's "notion of equality" denies the "demonstrable fact that many women differ from men in their preferences and goals". Insisting on a 50/50 gender balance in jobs and equal average earnings is a "tyranny of symmetry; and it produces unfairness, coercion and idiocy".

It also amounts to a "determined attack on what is left of family life in this country", says Peter Hitchens in The Mail on Sunday. Many women face a "terrible choice between career and motherhood". If they want to spend substantial time with their children, they will fall behind in their careers and earn less.

If we were seriously worried about this problem we would find a way of bringing these wise, responsible, experienced women back into the workforce after they have raised their offspring. Instead, we offer the "nationalisation of childhood by vast state-subsidised networks of misnamed childcare". If this is what Cameron wants, "in what way is he a conservative"?

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.