According to a report released last month by the World Economic Forum, the global pay gap between men and women will take 202 years to close. Data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that examined women and men’s income over 15 years found that in the United States, women on average make less than half what men make: for every dollar that men make, women make 49 cents. In the UK, the gender pay gap for full-time workers is 13.7 per cent.
There are many factors causing the gender pay gap, including discrimination, undervaluing roles predominantly occupied by women, and the dominance of men in most highly paid positions. However, one of the main factors is that women are more than twice as likely to take time off paid work to look after their children or their ageing parents, or both. Indeed, the pay gap between men and women widens dramatically following the birth of their first child, and motherhood, now, is a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender. What is more, the longer women are outside the workforce, the less they are paid when they return: women who stay outside paid employment for four years are paid 65 per cent less than women who continue working.
My new book tells the story of some of these women: professional women who quit their jobs after having children. This is a privileged group of women for whom availability of high-quality affordable childcare is not the problem that it is for so many families in the UK and elsewhere. As I wrote in my previous blog post, it was not (as we so often hear) their lack of confidence, ambition or determination that caused these women to leave the workplace. Rather, it was a confluence of factors, including the denial of requests for part-time work, relocations and, what Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian recently described as ‘hustle porn ’— toxic work cultures that demand and glorify long hours, which are often hostile to family life.
However, the inequality that the women I interviewed experienced at work and which had a detrimental effect on their careers, was compounded by another profound inequity — the one at home. These women were the ‘foundation parent’ who, even when working punishing hours, bore the brunt of unpaid childcare. And although they despised domesticity and the idea of being a housewife, they also did the bulk of the housework. It was the combination of having to do the lion’s share of the chores, the parenting in their home, and working in workplaces that were deeply incompatible with family life, that propelled these women to leave their careers. Even in cases where the woman had a job with reasonable hours in a supportive and flexible workplace, the workplace conditions of her partner — long hours, frequent business travels and high levels of stress — often forced her to make the difficult choice of quitting her job.
While the women I spoke to wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of parents equally sharing responsibilities, they simultaneously felt that they were expected — by their husbands, family members, their children’s paid carers and teachers, and society at large — to be the primary parent and to look after the household. These expectations may seem ridiculously old-fashioned, but they continue to be presented by popular discourses as normal, natural and even desirable. Indeed, even a cursory look at recent adverts reveals how, alongside some progressive messages of gender equality, the notion that a woman’s natural and primary role is to be a mother persists. For example, a commercial for Amazon’s Alexa depicts an incompetent father who, in the temporary absence of his wife, has to rely on Alexa’s manual-like instructions of how to handle his newborn. BBC One’s 2018 Christmas ad, Wonderland, which provoked fury among many mothers, begins by showing a hurried mother rushing out to work as her family — including the dad who sits passively at the table — is eating breakfast.
This view about parents’ gendered roles is not reserved to ads. A new study, based on a US national survey’s data from 1977 to 2016, found that while the majority of respondents support women’s equality at work, roughly a quarter say that women should do more homemaking and child-rearing. Another study, by the American non-profit non-partisan organisation Council on Contemporary Families, found that young people aged 18 to 25 — part of the millennials heralded as the gender-equality generation — are becoming increasingly convinced that it would be “much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and the family.” Fewer of these youngest millennials, the study revealed, support egalitarian family arrangements than did the same age group twenty years earlier.
And these are not ‘just’ views. Rather, as research consistently shows, there is a persistent gendered housework gap: according to the UK Office for National Statistics, women carry out an overall average of 60 per cent more unpaid work than men. The UK Fatherhood Institute’s Fairness in Families Index shows that for every hour UK women devote to caring for children, UK men will spend 24 minutes – making the UK the worst in the developed world for parents’ sharing of childcare responsibilities. In the US, on average, the time mothers spend on childcare is twice as much as is expended by fathers: 15 hours a week compared to 7 hours.
We cannot carry on talking about women’s equality in the workplace and the gender pay gap as if they were disconnected from these stubborn views and realities of gender inequalities at home. One thing that comes out very strongly from the accounts of the women I interviewed is that efforts to improve the conditions for equality at work are crucial but not enough. Ultimately these efforts will have limited effect without a simultaneous and systematic challenging of the normative expectations and gendered norms of parenting, and without creating the conditions for gender equality at home. While affordable quality care is of course pivotal and crucial, what emerged most prominently from the accounts of the women I interviewed is the urgency of instituting humane— and, critically, shorter — working hours to allow both parents to participate in family life in a meaningful way.
The gender pay gap is not a natural phenomenon that will simply diminish and reach zero in 202 years. If we don’t want to wait two centuries for things to get better, we must tackle the problem of women’s inequality by addressing its structural, social, and cultural roots in both the workplace and the home.
Also by Shani Orgad:
- This blog post is based on the author’s book Heading Home: Motherhood, Work and the Failed Promise of Equality, Columbia University Press, 2019.
- The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image credit: Photo via Pxhere, under a CC0 1.0 licence
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Shani Orgad is an associate professor in the department of media and communications. Her first degree was in media and communications with sociology and anthropology from The Hebrew University, and she has a Masters and a PhD in media and communications from the LSE. Her research interests include gender and the media, media representations and contemporary culture, representations of suffering, new media, the Internet and computer-mediated communication, narrative and media, media and everyday life, media and globalisation, health and new media and methodological aspects of doing Internet research. She has lectured in both Cambridge University and the LSE. In 2018 Shani won the LSE Education Excellence Award.