The Hard Road to Equality by Politics
"It is not possession of a womb that now holds women back, but its use." That's a line from a brilliant article published yesterday in the British magazine New Statesman. As journalist Richard Reeves explains, Britain has discovered what is likely true here in the US as well: the pay gap between men and women is virtually gone, until they become parents. The pay gap between mothers and fathers (or mothers and childless women) is still stubbornly large. Writes Reeves, "It is motherhood, rather than misogyny, that explains the pay gap."
Women earn less after they become mothers for obvious reasons, primarily their desire to work part-time so that they can be home with their children. Part-time work means lower hourly wages and lower status jobs. One in three female corporate managers in Britain lose their job status after having children, mostly because they reduce their hours and are downgraded to non-managerial positions.
But, as Reeves asks, "Is it bad news that women want to spend time with their children?" He answers his own question: "No - the overwhelming majority say they positively chose part-time work, and their job satisfaction is higher than that of mothers working full-time."
What to do about the economic problem that this job satisfaction creates? He rejects a pure economic solution, saying (I love this line), "Once we start putting a price tag on equality, we have lost sight of its value." The solution he prefers comes down to enhancing choice for both men and women, by addressing the facts that women still see childraising as their role in life and few men having the option to share childcare responsibilities. Reeves suggests that we must offer families "the maximum range of options from which to construct their version of a good life."
Specifically, he points to Britain's policy of 6 months paid maternity leave and 2 weeks paternity leave (pay negotiable). A policy like this is a set up for inequality, cementing the mother as the primary parent and saddling her with 100% of the couple's career hit when she returns (unless she returns full-time - a solution that typically means outsourcing a huge chunk of childcare). Instead, Reeves supports a British proposal to allow couples to share a set amount of paid parental leave between both parents. Yes, traditional couples will likely give most of this to the mother. But couples who want to achieve a more equal arrangement (even ESP!) would then have a fighting chance at doing so. Or, as Reeves so eloquently puts it, "It is high time the government stopped deciding for us which parent should raise our children."
Bottom line, Britain has much better work/family laws that we enjoy here in the US - ample paid maternity leave and the right of workers to request any type of flexible work schedule. But buyer beware - if we ever get paid maternity leave here, I highly suggest we go for shared paid parental leave instead (at least beyond the first few weeks for breastfeeding and medical birth recovery).