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.


Taking care of children is a job in itself

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).

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.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

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.

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.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.