Earlier this year, the Economist reported on a paper that reveals new findings from studying the gender pay gap and the factors underlying it. The Economist headline reads “The roots of the gender pay gap lie in childhood – women follow in their mothers’ footsteps when choosing whether to scale back their careers after having children”.
According to the Economist article, the study proves that women who grow up in families where the mother works tend to suffer smaller ‘child penalties’ (a term used to describe the adverse effects having children has on an individual’s career progression) compared to their peers who grew up in households where the mother stayed at home. Using Danish administrative data spanning over 33 years (1980-2013), the report demonstrates that the latter group of women were more likely to scale back their careers after having given birth; proving that a woman’s choice to focus on their careers after children is heavily influenced by the choice of their mothers.
The main takeaway from the article seems to be that the lesson for mothers who want their daughters to bridge the gender pay gap is that this is more likely to come true if they “lead by example”. Interestingly, by focussing on this the Economistoverlooks the main finding of the paper, which is that the income inequality that remains emerges as a result of the birth of the first child. The data clearly shows that having children is what creates a gender gap in earnings of around 20%, and it is only when they start unpacking the factors leading to it that they find that the choices of working women’s mothers with regards to her career and child rearing is significant.
Looking at the wider context of these findings, in order to understand how the two trends are connected, it becomes apparent that, since gender inequality caused by child penalties is what has increased over time (from 40% in 1980 to 80% in 2013), surely this must mean -in a backwards way- that overall gender equality has improved. It is no longer education or opportunity that hinders women from attaining equal pay for equal work, but the decision to have children, which is when the disparity seems to appear. This goes to show the significance of social conditioning, and the gender norms that persist in society – even in this ‘woke’ day and age. The question is: is the tide turning?
The importance of female role models and their impact on young girls’ dreams and aspirations is not a new point of discussion. It is a common subject of debates about the importance and impact of representation (descriptive versus substantive), and affirmative action (gender quotas) among well-established feminist literature by academics such as Wägnerud, Dahlerup and Lovenduski to name a few. Their answer to why women are disproportionately affected by the child penalty relative their male partners is the need for the capitalist patriarchy to ensure that women take the role as carers when a family is established, and societal institutions, structured to maintain this status quo. In fact, a feminist criticism of the state and society as historically patriarchal, how it intersects with capitalism and the wider implications of this is a key tenant of feminist theory, featuring heavily in the works of Carole Pateman, Susan Moller Okin and Susan Bordo. Another argument would be that it is biology, pure and simple.
The researchers claim to be agnostic about the policy implications of these findings. The paper seems to highlight that unequal pay is predominantly down to children, and this may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on the perspective one adopts. The policy implications of these findings are too significant to ignore but opinions will diverge on what those should materialise as. The previous literature focusing on the unexplained gender gap had a very straightforward normative benchmark: equal pay for equal work. It seems like this has been achieved (to an extent), so with this in mind, and with these findings at our disposal we can look towards the next steps.