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Why solving the gender pay gap begins at home

Despite huge advances in gender parity, women continue to be paid significantly less than men in the same role. So what’s the fix? Auckland Business School professor Susan St John has a radical plan.

The gender pay gap is back in the news. A recent Radio NZ report about the latest public sector employment data revealed that women in that sector earn as much as 39% less than men within the various departments. Overall the gender pay gap is 14%.

This is nothing new. The old rule of thumb used to be that women earn about 80% of the hourly rate of men. They also work about 80% of the hours men work each week, for 80% of a male working lifetime. Cut and splice it how you will.

Mind the gap sign

There are lots of theories about why this is so, including outright discrimination or, at the very least, unconscious bias in employment decisions by management.

Clearly, too, women predominate in lower-paid jobs such as nursing and aged care. These jobs are comparable in training and societal importance to those in more highly-paid, male-dominated professions such as policing. The traditional suppression of wages for female-dominated professions still exists and remains just plain wrong.

Other oft-cited excuses for the gap are that women are likely to be worse at negotiation – or simply not interested in taking a hard-nosed, stereotypically male approach to remuneration.

So are these problems to be fixed?

The ‘gender pay gap’ metaphor is far too narrow a rubric for such a complex story. To describe the problem as a ‘gap’ supposes the answer is to bridge it. It suggests that, for example, women just need to learn to be better negotiators and to have more confidence in their abilities. Likewise employers need to be made aware of their biases and sexism, to allow more women roles of greater responsibility and remuneration.

Something is missing in this conversation. Women are not twiddling their thumbs or inherently unambitious. At the heart of the so-called gap is the invisible and unpaid nature of care work that largely falls to women. When children or older parents demand a sizeable investment of a woman’s time and energy, it is harder for her to be enthusiastic about a promotion which will bring with it more responsibility, more stress and less flexibility. She is more likely to be interested in part-time work in the years of heavy family responsibility, sacrificing more stellar career paths.

Ironically, her invisible unpaid work is made visible only when someone else has to be paid to do it. Highly-paid career women earn enough to pay for nannies and home help. For most, the cost of unpaid care is most obvious in the high charges and subsidies for daycare and other child-related assistance.

Strident voices appear to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater by assuming that women should adopt male patterns of paid employment. They argue that the answer lies in provision of better and lower cost daycare, longer school days and better state-subsidised programmes for school holidays. While expensive, these policies may be an effective mechanism for freeing some women up to pursue careers at the same rate as their partners and male colleagues.

But it assumes that women must be prodded to leave their care duties to others, regardless of the needs of their families, and that it is the only way women can achieve financial equality and for their families to thrive.

Here’s a radical thought: what if care of young children was remunerated as highly skilled and valuable work by society? If nursing and age care provision were to be seen as just as valuable as policing and firefighting, the highly valuable work of procreation and child rearing surely could not be ignored forever – particularly given the way it echoes throughout our lives (and thus government balance sheets) when done well, or done poorly.

The invisibility of this work is the source of the true ‘gender gap’.

Just as we need to fund politicians to run the country, we could fund parents to look after their own children for the betterment of society. Mothers who do most of this care now would have a choice: they could outsource the care if they chose to return to their old careers.

Currently a well-off couple already has choices. If they opt to have one parent at home with the children there is an implicit contract that they share the income he earns and the value of the unpaid care she gives. If they divorce, assets are equally divided and there may even be compensation for economic disparity, where he has been advantaged by the division of duties in his earning capacity and she has been disadvantaged.

Not so the middle and low income mothers and those who are left on their own with children. They are at a huge disadvantage in the labour market.

To start the ball rolling, a parenting payment for at least the first year of a child’s life could replace the expensive and exclusionary paid parental leave, in work tax credit, childcare subsidies and sole parent support.

The mother on a parenting payment would be entitled to the same considerations as other employees, such as KiwiSaver contributions and subsidies, ACC income protection, and the in work tax credit.

Hypothetical and unrealistic? So are the current arrangements for many women. They are constructs that need to be rethought for the 21st century.

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