On gender gaps

17 August 2008

The A-level results came out this week, and apparently the gap between boys’ and girls’ results has narrowed slightly. Good news, I think. But a few things have occurred to me.

Whenever boys’ lack of achievement in school is discussed, the same thing is usually blamed: boys’ “laddish” and anti-learning culture.1 Boys’ failure is entirely their own fault and their own responsibility.

But when the gender pay gap is brought up – women working full time earning 17% less on average than men working full time – something must be done, preferably by legislation.2

So adult women are less responsible for the consequences of their own choices than male children? That can’t be right, surely.

The gender pay gap is usually used to demonstrate discrimination against women. I believe that, looked at in context, it actually shows the opposite. Bear with me.

Women working full time, on average, apparently earn 17.2% less than men working full time.3 This is because working mothers, for good practical reasons, tend to choose jobs they can combine with their duties as a parent, which means jobs that are less demanding of their time – no unexpected late nights, flexible enough to take time off at short notice – therefore less responsible, and lower paid.

They do this because they have the option to, and because they can afford to.

Men simply do not have the same options or choices in the workplace as women. That’s partly law, and partly social attitudes. An employer will cut a female employee plenty of slack if she has to take plenty of time off to take care of her children. He will not do so for a male employee. Any man judged to lack ambition will be quickly sidelined, and probably made redundant, with no risk of a discrimination lawsuit. Social pressure also comes from women, who rarely choose to start a family with a man without earning potential. Those men who want to be house-husbands or secondary earners/primary carers are therefore less likely to have children. And bringing up a family costs money, so if mum reduces her earning potential, guess who’s going to have to work harder?

Meanwhile, women are responsible for something like 80% of all consumer spending.4 If they can earn a fifth less than men but spend four times as much, then the shortfall in earnings is obviously not causing women to suffer financially.

In fact, using 17.2% as the pay gap and 77% (as per the Euromonitor link) as the spending gap, women spend 100% of the money they earn, and 53.49% – more than half – of the money men earn! And while women get flexible working hours, men are chained to their jobs. Which sex gets the better of this deal again?


1. See, for example, Andrew Cunningham in the Independent.

2. For example, Jackie Ashley in the Guardian.

3. That’s the mean, according to the government’s Equalities department. The median is 12.6%.

4. That’s the figure normally given for the USA. Visa say “Women control £400 million more expenditure than men every week” in the UK. I can’t find that expressed as a percentage, but Euromonitor says that “women are the primary spenders in 77% of consumer markets” in the 35 countries they surveyed.


7 Responses to “On gender gaps”

  1. […] could get me in trouble.  My latest post on The Disillusioned Liberal has a look at the gender pay […]

  2. Edward G. Robinson Says:

    Your readers might be interested to know that Arthur Efron’s
    The Sexual Body: An Interdisciplinary Perspective has been re-released.

    Full details:


  3. George Says:

    This is an argument I have considered many times. You have written it very succinctly, and I agree entirely.

    Great column, Paddy.


  4. Tordelback Says:

    “An employer will cut a female employee plenty of slack if she has to take plenty of time off to take care of her children.”

    Ah now Patrick, this must be some other, better, world you’re talking about (or possibly Canada). The law might be on the side of the woman, but as you well know many companies do everything they can to sideline women returning to work after having children, and frequently put them in difficult positions specifically to ‘encourage’ them to leave. Constructive dismissal it may be, but very few people actually want to take an employer to court – particularly if they plan on working in the same industry or even sector in the future. The litigious few get the headlines and create a healthy climate of fear, but for the majority of parents that work, male or female, it’s a step they’ll never take.

    I speak here as an employer – the arguments I’ve had with my business partners about treatment of pregnant women and mothers are legion, and usually highly unpleasant.

    I won’t dispute your statistical arguments, which are sound enough, but I would add that 100% of children that women have involved the participation of a man at some point, frequently consensually.

  5. paddybrown Says:

    Well, I work in the public sector, which bends over backwards for working mothers. Maybe the private sector is different.

    But your last paragraph I think addresses a point I didn’t and wouldn’t make. I am not trying to apportion blame for women getting paid less as if it’s a major injustice that women suffer. I am trying to argue that women do not suffer injustice, on average, from getting paid less, because their access to men’s earnings more than makes up the difference – which wouldn’t be possible if men, on average, weren’t doing their bit and supporting their families with their higher earnings. Those who don’t, contrary to popular opinion, are the exception and not the rule.

  6. Caragh Says:

    Very interesting.

    You’re quite right, “the public sector bends over backwards for working mothers”. And whereas I have every, every support for my working mum colleagues, I do sometimes resent the fact that they say things like: “Oh, it’s easy for you to be in early… you don’t know what it’s like if you’ve got kids…” Admittedly yes, I just have to get myself and partner sorted in the mornings; but still. There’s a slight loophole there that doesn’t get considered: women who don’t have children, for whatever reason…

  7. paddybrown Says:

    I don’t think you can call it a “loophole”. We’re talking averages, so when we say that one sex has the better or the worse deal that’s with the understanding that there are many individuals who aren’t average, and don’t enjoy the advantages or suffer the disadvantages of their sex as a whole. Besides, while there are childless woman, there are also childless men, probably in roughly similar proportions, so that doesn’t have much effect on the difference between the male and female averages.

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