Over the past six months, coronavirus has visualized the disparities in opportunities our world faces. From inequality of income to the privilege of sanitary conditions, each country is dealing with not only healthcare problems the virus poses but also its implications on other industries. One of these has been the large pay cuts and firing sprees seen by Fortune 500 companies like Amazon. However, the most striking thing has been the disproportionate termination and direct exclusion of women from the workforce during this period.
A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that mothers are twice as likely to be fired than fathers at this time. But the situation was only slightly better before COVID. The wage gap between men and women kept increasing and the number of female CEOs accounted for less than 1/4th of CEOs in the world. In fact, women suffered a loss of billions of dollars in the US over the wage gap.
Factors contributing to the wage gap include women taking lower-paying jobs by participating in lower paying industries (like nursing, teaching), jobs without flexible hours for the woman to care for her child, bonus discriminations between men and women, and discriminatory hiring practices. However, this can largely be traced back to societal conventions that lie at the heart of the problem.
What are these ‘Societal Conventions’?
This issue of equal pay for equal work has been around for quite a while. The slogan itself was raised during the first wave of feminism in the 1830s United Kingdom and not much change has been seen in the last 200 years. Historically, women were denied basic rights and thought of as “lesser than” than males in intellect, physical ability, and working ethic. Thus, they were kept at home as daughters and then wives, and were restricted to the sphere of domestic work as men dominated the “workspace”. During the World Wars, this binary restriction was somewhat lifted as women began to hold secretary positions and started working in factories. However, the seats of the CEO and executives were still reserved. This too began to change with women becoming increasingly educated and acquiring high visibility positions such as the first woman in space, the first woman prime minister, and so on. But one of the major obstacles in this race for equality has been the lack of removal of “traditional roles”.
The term “breadwinner”, “Man of the House”, “money-maker”, all provide the image of a man with a briefcase, suit and tie heading off to work to provide for his family. His wife stays at home, taking care of their children. This notion of family has been challenged by women entering the labour force in the last two centuries or so which present a question many have grappled with. If both parents are at work, who takes care of the children? The answer, unfortunately, is not an equal contribution by both parents. With this nuclear model of the family, not much has changed except for the woman contributing to the financial income of her house and tending to her child. Her participation outside the house does not seem to have translated into her husband helping inside the house. As a result, a disproportionate share of “house-work” is done by the woman.
Imagine the trajectories of a male and female starting out in the same job. They both earn well and successfully climb the corporate ladder, they get married, have a child and there the divide begins. While the woman stays at home, taking care of her child, the male goes on climbing. As she returns back to work, she finds herself facing missed opportunities as she opts for flexible working hours so that she can pick up her child from schools, attend PTA meetings, take the child for a doctors’ visits;all this piles up for her while the father has now become the executive manager of the company. Why does this happen? Because societal conventions state that it is the traditional duty of the mother (and solely her) to “mother” the child.
What Perpetuates this Convention?
However, the blame cannot lie squarely on our history. What has led to these practises and these roles still being adhered to, are the policies in the workplace that further cement the job of a mother as opposed to that of a father. One policy is glaringly obvious, that of maternal and its absent sequel, paternal leave. Leave from work due to the birth of a child has always been provided to the mother in question and largely laughed about when a father asks for the same consideration. Less than half the countries in the world provide paternal leave whereas almost all provide maternal leave. How influential is this difference between a mother and a woman in their income?
Studies have found that this might in fact be the largest sole contributor to the pay gap. ‘Children and Gender Inequality: Evidence from Denmark’, explained how it is largely this maternal leave that counts for women being paid less. The paper uses the term “mom tax” to describe how mothers, more so than women, have to opt for fewer working hours, flexible timings, passing on traveling for work, and other opportunities to provide childcare for their baby. The maternal leave itself puts them in a position to withdraw from the workforce and stay at home. “In a regime where anyone can go part-time, where it’s hard to get rid of people if they do, employers might sort on the front end and not hire people they think are likely to want to go part-time, which usually means women,” said Lawrence F. Katz, an economist at Harvard.
Furthering this is the discriminatory practices of employers while hiring women. Employers overlook women because they predict the woman will afford maternity leave. They expect women to get married, have children and quit. Meanwhile, men become fathers and continue working, with the change of a baby making little impact on their careers.
How do we Challenge Maternity Leave?
The natural progression of the notion of equality is equality in all respects, which means equality in policies to all employers irrespective of their gender. The way to combat maternity leave and the stigma of women being ‘primary’ care-givers is to introduce paternal leave for both parents. Instead of only the women being accorded leave after pregnancy, both parents take a stipulated amount of time from work to become equal caregivers and participate in the house chores. The policy has, in fact, been implemented in Iceland with successful results.
Iceland has been the number one ranked in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report as a direct result of three months leave to both parents and then an additional three months leave to share between both parents. A 2012 report investigating gender equality in the country found it resulted in more bonding between the father and the child as well as an increase in equality between men and women in the workplace.
In Quebec too with its new paternity leave quote, a study found that the reform effectively changed how parents chose to utilise their time. Initially, fathers before the reform would spend considerably less time on chores like cooking, cleaning that required some time away from their work. After the new policy, fathers spend more time in child care and domestic care. With men spending time in the household sphere, space is created for the mother to more actively contribute to her career. Women in Quebec also contributed financially to the economy in larger numbers.
If solving the issue of maternal leave and by extension, a part of the wage gap problem is simply by providing joint paternal leave, then why have more countries not mandated it? Unfortunately, the problem with pursuing paternal leave is that it is a costly solution.
However, will the revenue generated by increasing the number of women in the workforce offset the expense of providing this leave? This is a question we will have to wait to answer if countries around the world begin to roll out such family-friendly policies.
Niharika Mehrotra is a second-year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Political Science from Ashoka University.