But, in their rush to do something about the problem, business leaders should look beyond the data and ask: what would actually make the biggest difference to reducing their pay gap? Answering this means diving below the often-touted government figure of “record female employment” and asking what kinds of jobs women are doing. Research reveals that too often it’s low-paid, part-time work, with little potential for pay progression.
It remains the case that women’s working patterns and therefore careers are hugely affected by the transition to motherhood – 38% of mothers work part-time (compared to 33% who work full-time), while only 7% of fathers do.
The problem is not with part-time work itself (although we may want to ask why so few fathers go part-time after the birth of a couple’s first child). The problem lies with the way companies treat their part-time workers. Astounding research published from the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank in 2018 finds that, on average, part-time workers get negligible increases in their wages year on year – and their disadvantage is far and above what we would expect to see if they received increases that are proportional to their full-time equivalents.
In 2012, research revealed that almost a quarter of part-time workers reported that they had no chance of promotion. This percentage was even larger among those in lower-skilled jobs. There is also abundant evidence that – whether it is retail sales assistants, catering workers, or nurses and teachers – part-time workers are perceived as less committed and opportunities for progression tend therefore to be limited to full-time employees. This traps part-time workers – who are predominately female – into lower-paid roles.
What full-time work looks like
So tackling the gender pay gap must take into account the way that part-time workers are treated. For starters, we need to look at improving the quality of part-time jobs themselves – including the opportunities and support available for progression and promotion. But, more fundamentally, we must also ask why, for so many British families, the answer to balancing work and childcare responsibilities involves mothers going back to work part-time?
There are some familiar and depressing answers to this question. Most obviously, the high cost of childcare makes it unaffordable for families to manage without one parent going part-time or even leaving the workplace altogether. But another answer lies in the expectations around what full-time work looks like and the demands that employers and workplace culture put on full-time workers.