Mary Harrington

Labour’s women-friendly work policies are anything but

Labour's women-friendly work policies are anything but
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Labour has pledged to close the gender pay gap by 2030 and the party has chosen today – 'Equal Pay Day' – to launch its supposedly women-friendly work policies. The party plans to force small and medium-sized companies to perform gender pay gap audits, just as bigger companies of 250 are required to do already. This sounds all very feminist if you are one of the women for whom career is a priority. No ambitious, career-oriented woman wants to be underpaid relative to male colleagues for equal work. According to sociologist Catherine Hakim, though, this only comprises some 20 per cent of working women. The vast majority – some 60 per cent in the UK and US – prefer to balance work and family life more equally. For these women, Labour’s proposed policy is disastrous.

For a start, it will create a perverse incentive for even small companies to get rid of women in lower-paid roles. ‘Gender pay gap’ audits do not measure whether male and female employees performing the same work receive similar pay. The audits simply measure how much male and female employees are paid, taking no account of the work these employees are performing.

This means that if an organisation is skewed toward female administrators, cleaners and middle management with a layer of higher paid, predominantly male consultants and bosses over them, the gender pay gap audit results will be poor. As it is time-consuming to find and recruit senior female staff to balance the pay statistics at the top, a far quicker and easier way to improve the numbers will be to fire female cleaners and outsource the work to a cleaning services supplier. If that is not enough, the firm also has an incentive to sack half the female administrators and replace them with male ones.

Things look even worse for women under Labour's plans when you take into account their working preferences. A higher proportion of women than men prefer to work part-time, in order to be available for their children. Though polite received opinion tends to present this ‘burden’ of childcare as an imposition on women (the Economist even calls it the ‘motherhood penalty’) this can just as easily be understood as a maternal set of priorities. For such women, caring for children is as important as – if not more important than – earning money.

That the majority of mothers with young children want to work a bit but do not want to do so all the time is well-supported by statistics from the Equalities Office itself. The report shows less than half of women previously working full-time return to such work after having their first child. This figure drops over subsequent years and children and the same report shows women’s careers flatlining relative to men’s over the years following childbirth.

Though typically framed in negative terms, what these numbers reveal is perfectly reasonable from the perspective of any mother who – as is generally the case – enjoys the chance to work but also values time spent with their children and would prefer not to be bothered by work when doing so.

There is nothing more wearing than fielding a tetchy email demanding something RIGHT THIS INSTANT when you are happily decorating biscuits with your three-year-old. The biscuits matter too. The email can wait.

The result is that unless a mother has an ultra-flexible self-employed line of work, she will be more likely than a comparable man to seek out an administrative or mid-level job that can be left behind at 5pm with a clean conscience. These roles pay less and this in turn will skew the ‘gender pay gap’ statistics.

So if, as Labour proposes, even small and medium-sized companies have to reveal their pay gaps, then under Labour the number of ‘leave it behind at 5pm’ jobs available to women will shrink. The policy might result in a few more senior women being employed. But the far greater number of mothers who actively prefer a job that will not pester them by smartphone all weekend would inevitably lose out.

As a result of Labour’s flagship feminist policy, those companies who might otherwise have employed female administrators, cleaners and middle managers would end up discriminating on the basis of sex in favour of men. The women bumped from these roles to massage the pay gap statistics would either have to work harder and longer than they would like or else – if they cannot bear to park their babies in childcare 12 hours a day – become stay-at-home mothers instead. Thanks, Labour.

Mary Harrington is a writer and mother