The gender pay gap is largely down to parenthood

Young women earn only slightly less than their male peers but the gap widens with age.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 24 Jan 2017

Huge strides have been made in improving gender equality at work in the past decade or so. More and more women are breaking into the boardroom and gender differences in income are closing too. But fresh research from the Resolution Foundation think tank suggests that women are still losing out – especially when they start having kids. 

Female baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1965 – earned 16% less than men of the same generation when in their 20s. That figure has fallen to just 5% for millennials (born 1980-2000). That’s largely thanks to improved access to education (more women than men now attend university in the UK) and declining discrimination in the jobs market.

But the pay gap is likely to balloon as today’s young begin to have children. For baby boomers that 16% increased to a whopping 34% by the time they reached their 40s. Those millennial women who have passed their 30th birthday (the average age of a new mother in the UK) earn 9% less than men of the same age, a gap that’s only slightly smaller than it was for the previous generation.

The figures underline the significance of parenting issues in tackling pay inequality and the general representation of women in senior roles. Some might argue that there’s no problem. That having a child and taking however many months of maternity leave (or working part-time to spend more time raising their offspring) is a lifestyle choice - and so mothers should accept the resulting consequences for their career.

Thankfully such attitudes are on the wane. Women shouldn’t have to compromise between kids and career, and it’s not like as a society we don’t need children – who do you think is going to pay for your pension and social care?

Read more: Is there a 'right' time to have kids? 

A big part of the challenge is having men take a greater responsibility for raising children – not just because women shouldn’t have to shoulder an unfair burden but also because men want to play a greater role in family life. While the government introduced shared parental leave in 2015, uptake by dads (and by female partners of mothers) has been slow – the CIPD says only around 5% of new fathers have taken up the offer.

Part of the issue is communication. ‘There are people I know who weren’t really sure what their rights were,’ Accenture’s Mark Smith, who took 36 weeks of paternity leave, told MT last year. ‘They’ve heard the legislation is changing but didn’t really understand what their companies were offering as a package and that they had the right to request that leave.’

And it can be difficult to make shared leave work financially – many employers refuse to pay mothers’ partners as much as mothers. There’s surely a cultural element to this too – that some fathers who want to take shared leave worry about how that will be seen by their colleagues.

It’s clear that many employers have made themselves a lot more welcoming and supportive of women. But unless we can level the parenthood playing field, the gender pay gap and a lack of diversity at the top is likely to persist.


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