Could flexible working hurt women's careers? That's the view of the Bank of England’s Catherine Mann, who fears it could open 'two tracks' and widen the 'gender gap'.
If that wasn't bad enough, Scottish Widows tells us that because of lower pay and longer life expectancies young women 'must save an extra £185,000 to reach the same retirement income as men'.
This Thursday, we'll also hear the Fawcett Society make its annual fuss over 'Equal Pay Day'. This, of course, is the day when women are, allegedly, no longer earning relative to men because of the gender pay gap. Even though equal pay and the gender pay gap are two separate issues – the first a matter of law, the second mostly meaningless data that explains little about working life in Britain today – we’ll still be informed that women will, until the end of the year, effectively be 'working for free'.
The picture these stories paint is of a prejudiced, patriarchal society where gender inequality is steadily worsening. But the reality is rather different. For a start, the gap in men and women’s earnings often boils down to compensating differentials and free choice. If women opt to work fewer hours, work flexibly, prioritise shorter commutes and even retire earlier, is it any wonder their retirement savings are lower at the end of the day? Or that wellbeing surveys suggest that women are on average happier at work?
Men, meanwhile, accounted for 97 per cent of all fatal injuries at work in 2020-21 – and less pleasant or more risky jobs are often offset with higher pay. Men are also less likely to choose to take time out of work after the birth of their first child. Recent data found that women who have children earn up to 45 per cent less than those who do not, largely because many mothers prefer to work part-time. Contrary to the current zeitgeist, some women simply don’t want to 'have it all'. We can certainly ask whether our society still places too much pressure on women to stay home and raise a family, but decrying pay and pension differentials brought about by choice helps no one.
Which brings us neatly to Equal Pay Day. This week, we can expect to hear the baseless assertion that women are working 'for free' until the end of December. But the thinking behind this logic badly conflates the gender pay gap with the issue of equal pay for equal work, which has been mandated by law in the UK since 1970. Yes, there are some rogue employers out there who don’t compensate women fairly. But that’s why we have employment tribunals.
Fawcett uses gender pay gap figures from the Office for National Statistics to calculate Equal Pay Day. But these data fail to take into account job, age, education or background of male and female workers. This means a comparison is being made between the salaries of seasoned CEOs with entry-level employees, with Fawcett then declaring that sexism is to blame for differences in pay and demanding mandatory action plans form employers to tackle the 'gap'.
It’s deceitful to suggest to women that they are being paid lower wages than their male counterparts for doing the same job, and will have to work longer for less. There is no harm in expressing concern that women’s careers could be derailed by hybrid working, because 'the extemporaneous, spontaneity are hard to replicate in a virtual setting'. The same cannot be said of misinforming girls that, no matter how hard they try, they’ll never be as successful as men, at a time when women are making huge advances in the workplace.