At my all-girls secondary school, we were told that our skirts needed to be knee length because we were “making the male teachers uncomfortable”. That is a direct quote. But we were also told that it was our responsibility to fight for equal rights in a world dominated by men. If we weren’t going to fight, then who would? Aged 11, I nodded my head in absentminded agreement, proud that I could go home and tell my mum that I knew exactly what ‘feminism’ meant. But I didn’t have a clue. Surely by the time I was thinking about entering the workforce (we’re talking around a decade here), women would be earning the same pay as men and it wouldn’t be something I had to worry about. It wouldn’t affect me. Well, not really.
Now, in 2019, I’m in my second year at university, worrying about my career choices, and the gender pay gap seems more topical than ever before.
It’s a feeling of vulnerability, of exploitation
When the BBC published its list of its highest paid staff in 2017, naming just 34 women in comparison to 62 men, it was a scandal. It became apparent that the pay gap remains preposterously large. The highest earning woman, Claudia Winkleman, earned £1.7 million less than the highest earning man, Chris Evans, in 2016. BBC presenter Samira Ahmed compared the feeling of realising that you are being paid less than your male colleagues to discovering that your bosses have “naked pictures of you in their office”. It’s a feeling of vulnerability, of exploitation.
Surprisingly, considering the debate’s extensive focus on the BBC, it’s an organisation better placed than most. At the BBC, the median disparity between men and women’s hourly wage lies at 9.3%. While shocking, this seems minor in comparison to the national median of 18.4%. At Warwick University, the gap currently stands above the national average, at a median of 23.4%, making it the second-worst of the Russell Group universities. A primary reason for the pay disparity nationwide is that men dominate the highest paying roles. At Warwick, women fill 67% of the lower quartile of jobs, but just 34% of the top quartile.
In 2016, ‘This Girl Can’ reported that 2.8 million women aged between 14-40 had claimed that the campaign had encouraged them to be more active, just a year after its launch
In 2016, the BBC reported that girls outperform boys at every level of school education, with women 35% more likely to go to university than men. If girls are doing so well academically, why aren’t they occupying more of the top-paying roles? It could partly be attributed to culture and stereotype; men are considered leaders and women followers. As an example of this, we need look no further than the James Bond films, which glorify sexist archetypes through the relationships between Bond and the Bond girls. Equally, Disney fairy-tales perpetuate misogynistic stereotypes. Keira Knightley recently sparked controversy when she said she’d banned her daughter from watching The Little Mermaid and Cinderella: “I mean, the songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello!”.
Yet, while it’s fairly easy to introduce a strong female lead into a film or TV series, making these changes in real life is a more complex task. Perhaps the initial step is campaigning. ‘This Girl Can’ brilliantly promotes female engagement within sport, something that could be extended to the workspace. In 2016, ‘This Girl Can’ reported that 2.8 million women aged between 14-40 had claimed that the campaign had encouraged them to be more active, just a year after its launch.
One of the primary causes of the gender pay gap is childcare. Women have conventionally adopted the role of carers, partly because of natural instinct but also due to practicality. Maternity leave is far more generous than paternity leave. Statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks, with 39 weeks paid. By contrast, men are only eligible for up to two weeks paid paternity leave, unless they share 37 weeks paid parental leave with their partner. Better paternity schemes are required to integrate the responsibilities of work with those of starting a family. Finland is the only country in the world where fathers spend more time with their school-aged children than mothers, according to The Guardian. Finnish fathers are offered 9 weeks paternity leave in which they’re paid 70% of their salary. A new campaign for the scheme, ‘It’s Daddy Time!’ depicts a smiling construction worker pushing a baby in a wheelbarrow on its flyers, encouraging men to take on childcare responsibilities. Finland is considered the second most equal country in the world according to the Global Gender Pay Gap report.
Perhaps due to employer concerns that women are more likely to take time off work to care for their children, it has been found that male-dominated industries are less likely to consider a woman’s job application over a man’s. According to YouGov, 25% of women have been questioned about their plans for having children, compared to just 14% of men and 22% of women have been asked if they plan to marry, with only 16% of men being asked the same question. Sexist attitudes often continue after she gets the job. When my mum, who was an architect at the time, approached her boss to tell him she was pregnant with me 19 years ago, he retorted, “Well you’ll want time off, I suppose.”
It’s a vicious cycle
Companies should be equipped to support women throughout their pregnancy and in their transition back to work. After taking time off work, the adjustment back can be challenging. With technology evolving so rapidly, taking a year out to look after a newborn child can mean falling desperately behind your colleagues. Having a child should by no means end a career; a mother should have as much right to flourish within the workspace as anyone else.
But childcare costs can be extortionate. Without the funds to finance full-time childcare, a parent will inevitably have to take time off work to support children. But this means the loss of a second income. It’s a vicious cycle. Single parents, in particular, are robbed of the choice, having to rely on childcare to support their families.
The Family and Childcare Trust have outlined the four childcare support systems currently implemented by the government: tax credits, Universal Credit, employer-supported vouchers, and the new tax-free voucher. However, the trust argues that these systems are too confusing and complex. They are working to form a simple, unified childcare support system.
In the meantime, companies should work to forge better support for parents. Goldman Sachs, whose mean gender pay gap is a whopping 55.5%, have introduced new schemes in a desperate attempt to conquer the disparity.
Cultural archetypes are already changing and hopefully will continue to do so, with women increasingly being portrayed as equals to their male counterparts
Amongst these schemes are offers to ship female employees’ breast milk to their children if they are working abroad as well as offering emergency nannies for ill children when their parents have to work. But these proposals are only a start. Whether they can bridge that 55.5% pay gap in the long term is uncertain. The majority of women would prefer to be physically present to breastfeed their babies. The bond between mother and child is not formed by the milk, but the close contact between them. Shipping milk across borders does not replace this.
Most parents would prefer to care for their children themselves, or at least leave a close friend, relative or a childminder in charge (someone they’ve known for longer than a day). I remember being ill when I was little – all I wanted was my mum. An ‘emergency nanny’ turning up at my door, presumably a stranger, would have terrified me, as it would many children. Schemes like this rely on parents being able to afford childcare when the child isn’t sick. There’s school, but how are they meant to get to and from school? And what happens in the school holidays?
If significant changes are made the gender pay disparity could be eliminated. Cultural archetypes are already changing and hopefully will continue to do so, with women increasingly being portrayed as equals to their male counterparts. Women have as much a right to success as men, but now, as we enter 2019, change needs to be implemented.
As future graduates, entering the workforce for the first time, it is our responsibility to fight for equal rights, to make sure our generation conquers inequality. It is not an inevitable fact of life. If we don’t fight, who will?