A Question of Equality?

Lucy Makinson responds to the Equal Pay Review in her usual no-nonsense style.

cusu women's campaign Equal Pay Review Feminism gender equality Lucy Makinson

Figures from The Equal Pay Review 2012 have shown that female staff are earning 1/5th less than male staff within Cambridge University. Cue the usual accusations that this highlights discrimination, followed by counter arguments that it is simply a reflection of women doing less work and running off to have babies, and “the women’s campaign will complain about anything these days”. Both arguments have an element of validity, while also missing the point.

Women, almost certainly, have fewer years of experience on average. Under current legislation, if anyone is having children (which we can safely assume they are), and someone is taking time off to look after them post-birth, it is almost always going to be a woman – a man simply has no legal right to. As the grading within a position is partly determined by experience, we would therefore expect women to be paid less. Secondly, women are more likely to choose flexible work at the expense of higher wages than men, so it is plausible that female staff at the university are self-selecting into lower positions, in order to keep their time more flexible.

This does not mean that there is no discrimination within the university, and there is always anecdotal evidence that there is, but these figures don’t show it. The suggestion that the pay gap is evidence of institutional sexism by the university implies that an institution which is not sexist would pay men and women equally. Due to the reasons above, I don’t think this is the case. A far more interesting question would be what proportion of male and female staff move up the pay scale due to exceptional achievement compared to experience? I may be misunderstanding or oversimplifying the pay scale system a touch, but this weighing up of discretionary vs. rule based progression just might be more illustrative.

However, even if we did conclude that all the wage gaps within the university could be accounted for by differences in parental leave, and preference for flexibility, that does not mean that there is no problem to address. Most of the justification for women rationally being paid less is due to a discriminatory piece of legislation that means early parental responsibility is borne disproportionately by women. Women have to take the time off work because men can’t. This doesn’t have to be the case – there are workable systems of flexible maternity and paternity rights in place in Scandinavia that not only see men taking a substantial portion of leave, but also engaging more in parental duties throughout a child’s life.  Whilst cultural change will no doubt take time, legislation changes such as these would at least make it theoretically possible for women to work on the same terms as men.

The women’s campaign are right to say that these figures indicate a problem, but the entirety of that problem does not fall on the university’s shoulders and with this data alone we cannot prove that any of it does. We need stronger data to begin to separate the effects due to institutional sexism, and the effects of legislative discrimination —  insisting it is demonstrated through these statistics shows a poor understanding, or wilful misinterpretation, of the data. This, I fear, only undermines the argument when more concrete evidence of discrimination, even if it is anecdotal, is brought up.

In the meantime, let’s end the legislative discrimination that makes it impossible for the most well-meaning of employers to treat men and women equally, and for women who choose to prioritise their careers (while still wanting to have children) to do so.  Allowing parental rights to be shared equally, should a couple choose to do so, is not only fair for both men and women, but is also a starting point to being able to rationally demand equal wages.