At what point does work to close the ‘gender
pay gap’ become social engineering?


We know that the gender pay gap is a myth. It’s a myth because men and women in comparable work with comparable experience earn the same – and when looking at younger age groups, women earn a little more. We also know that there is a difference between what mothers earn versus men and women who are not mothers.

In many ways, this makes sense. Most women who have a baby take time out of work, and when they return to work often choose part time hours or less demanding roles – so they can spend more time at home.

Now, I’m not saying that is a good thing. Nor am I saying it is a bad thing. It is simply the reality of people’s choices.

Not so the ‘Women and Equalities Select Committee’, which reported today. They think this ‘motherhood’ gap is a bad thing, and want to do more to encourage women to work sooner and more hours after they have had children – and so close the gap between mothers versus men and women who are not mothers.

I’m going to make some generalisations about men and women now (gasp!).

Most mothers want to stay at home with their baby. Especially in that first year or two. This is for all kinds of reasons – some of it is instinct. Some of it is because they want to breastfeed. That is not to say that all mothers want to do that or that they should want to do that. I believe that women should be free to choose for themselves. This is just a reality I have observed, and is observable around the world.

It’s purely anecdotal evidence, but many of my friends are now mothers. I have watched mother after mother come towards the end of her maternity leave and start panicking – because she doesn’t want to go back to work and leave her baby with someone else. She frantically begins doing sums and figuring out if she has to go to work – and if she does have to, how few hours the family can manage financially.

Now of course, I also know people (a small minority within my social and family circle) who found staying at home with a baby really tough, and needed to go back to work to regain a measure of sanity. But even in those cases, among the people I know they went back to work two or three days a week rather than their former full time hours.

I have also come across a couple of families where the father has stayed at home and the mother continued working after a short amount of maternity leave. Sometimes this is financially informed. But we also need to recognise that not all women want to be with their baby all of the time, and not all men are happy to leave it to the mother.

But let’s be real – that first set of people, the mothers who want to be with their babies, is much bigger. And it is observed across the world – even in countries with very active equality policies like Sweden. Given the bond that comes from women carrying babies for nine months and the breastfeeding that often comes next, I can’t see that changing any time soon.

The report also draws attention to a couple more ‘problems’:

  • The ‘part time trap’, where more women than men work in part time jobs. But as I described above, many women – mothers – prefer to work part time hours so that they can spend more time with their family. Especially when the kids are in primary school. These years where some mothers work less also has an effect down the line when looking at senior positions.
  • Occupational segregation, where women tend to work in areas such as care, retail and cleaning. But this is their choice, too. These kinds of jobs often inherently have more flexible working hours – which suit many women. It’s not clear what barriers have been identified to these women doing other jobs, aside from motherhood and career breaks.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee wants to see more shared leave for mothers and fathers, and more ‘encouragement’ to move women into other jobs.

But the MPs responsible should take a look at what has happened in other countries. In Sweden there are very strong parental leave rights which are shared by both parents, and other help such as free childcare. The result? Swedish women are much more likely to take parental leave, much more likely to work part time, and more likely to work in caring professions than Swedish men. Because they choose to.

In my view, it’s time this Committee and campaigners in this area realised that many mothers do not want to be ‘helped’ in the way they suggest. If women’s rights mean anything at all, surely it should mean being free to choose? It’s time these campaigners respected that sometimes people make choices campaigners may not like, but which suit their own families.

Emily is the Chairman of Conservatives for Liberty. Follow her on Twitter: @ThinkEmily

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty