It has been 45 years since legislation was passed in the UK to make it a legal obligation to pay both men and women the same and yet a recent UN report shows us that it will take at least 70 years to close the current pay gap where women earn 77p for a man’s £1, a figure that has barely shifted in 20 years.
Importantly, childbearing plays a large role in the lack of equal pay for women with childless women earning 25% more than those with children. This is no surprise in a culture where people like Lord Alan Sugar, the hugely popular star of the UK version of The Apprentice, can boast that he tears up the CVs of women of childbearing age applying for jobs at his companies and it goes relatively unnoticed, even as a recent Enterprise Champion for the government.
One of the things I find truly astounding throughout my studies on gender is just how strong the benevolently sexist idea that women should remain the main child carer is in our culture. These days even those who consider themselves progressive have become neo-conservative on this issue, something that I think was actually less so twenty years ago. The other week we had dinner at a neighbours, a couple of retired academics, the male scientist mentioned in passing, his history of bringing up his two boys himself, and it struck me how rare this is these days.
Indeed my research with men aged 21-40 found none of of them (admittedly, as a qualitative in depth study, there were only 30 men interviewed in total) saw it as a man’s role to look after the children. They were pretty equally split between feeling sorry for women having their careers damaged by child rearing and those who blamed women for expecting to have both kids and a career. NONE of them saw it as their role; they just didn’t imagine it to be relevant to them.
What has gone wrong between the 70’s and now? I believe it is the aforementioned ‘neo-conservative’ attitude to women being the main child-rearer as part of the problems in our time of mixed feminist messages. When you can legitimately say that anything that a woman chooses can be labelled ‘feminist’, you are able to argue that a woman choosing to stay home and have kids is a real choice even when society has slipped back into its old ways of assuming she will as the default position.
In other words, just like the term ‘compulsorily heterosexual’ refers to those (nearly all of us) who have never truly pondered on whether they might be anything else but heterosexual, can’t really call such a label for themselves a ‘choice’, then we should ask whether men and women who grow up with similar blinkers about idealised motherhood can really think of themselves as choosing from a variety of alternatives?
The reason why people are inclined to think of women as primary carers is that there aren’t real alternatives so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 2010 when I was running for election on behalf of the Liberal Democrats we had an excellent piece of policy that aimed to give parents equal rights to their children including rights to share (both have to add up to the current maximum of one year) of leave off work. This would help couples who, for instance, have fathers who are more inclined to nuturing, or mothers who earn more, to make the most reasonable decision as a couple over their child rearing and career earning positions.
It would also throw those torn up CVs back in the faces of sexist dinosaurs such as Sugar because if a man can legally take equal time out of his career, who is left to discriminate against? He can’t throw everyone of childbearing age’s CV away. Now that would be worth tuning in to watch…