Merryn's Blog

Want to end the gender pay gap? Stop women having babies

A new report has backed up the uncomfortable truth, says Merryn Somerset Webb – to end the gender pay gap you have to alter biology.

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Every time someone asks me how the gender pay gap can be closed I give them the same answer. Rearrange life sothat women no longer give birth. That should do it. They laugh. But I am completely serious.

There has long been evidence to show that the gender pay gap is small in most areas (and non-existent among graduates) until women start having children. Then it appears. Why? Because we take time out from work at exactly the age when promotions start to be handed out with their attached pay rises. Because when we do come back to work, we often work shorter hours: ask to work from home or to do four days a week instead of five; and shift ourselves away from work that involves travel. And possibly because once we have had children, we care less about work (I'm generalising here).

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A new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies todaybacks up all these thoughts: the gender pay gap kicks in after a woman has her first child and "widens consistently" over the next 12 years. The reason is simple: "by 20 years after the birth of their first child, women have on average been in paid work for four years less than men and have spent nine years less in paid work of more than 20 hours per week". So that's that.

Women earn less per hour, not simply because they are women, and not because their wages drop suddenly after they have children, but because they spend less time in the work force (on average) and accumulate less working experience.

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How can you change that? You could make women work more (seems like a bad idea for the kids). You could make men work less (if perhaps they took on more of the looking after the kids). Shared leave is good in this context. But really a lot of this is about biology. And, try as you might, you can't change that.

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