Helen Palmer (nice_cup_of_tea) wrote,
Helen Palmer
nice_cup_of_tea

Mind the (gender) gap

This is an article I've just finished writing for "The Networker" - which sounds a grander publication than it is! It's the quarterly newsletter for the Professional Women's Group in Zurich. I was convinced the deadline was Feb 8th, so I'd been thinking about it for a few days and had printed some references off the internet. And then yesterday evening I got an email saying, you are still okay for tomorrow's deadline? Aargh! Anyway, just finished writing the required 800 words, so here's the fruit of my labours please. Any comments gratefully received, although they probably won't get edited in :-)

And yes, I know it's a weak title, any other offers?

Mind the (gender) gap
Following the article in the Autumn Networker on the WEF’s Gender Gap Study, Helen Palmer considers the wider implications of the gender gap in today’s workplace.

A few months ago, there was an advert on display in Zurich’s public transport system. The poster showed a blurred art shot of a tram at Paradeplatz in front of a floodlit Fraumünster. It suggested that Zurich’s workers should start talking about their salary as a first step towards achieving gender equality. Leaving aside the cultural taboo about discussing what we earn, it seemed to me that this advert encapsulates the gender gap debate. Why, on average, do men earn more money than women on average? However, the “gender gap” takes in a wider range of issues than just salary inequality. This article considers two main questions. Firstly, what is meant by the term “gender gap”? Secondly, how is this gap experienced by women and men in our society?

To define “gender gap” I return to the World Economic Forum report, “Woman’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap”. Using the WEF’s benchmarking criteria, the gender gap is measured against five categories: economic opportunity, economic participation, political empowerment, health and well-being, educational attainment. The strength of this approach is that it takes a multi-disciplinary view which goes beyond a simple comparison of male to female pay differentials. I find it noteworthy that “economic opportunity” goes beyond measure women’s strength in the labour market, or their average pay. It examines supporting factors such as the amount of maternity leave, childcare provision and the ratio of women in technical and professional jobs.

However, many of the debates in the literature on the gender gap focus solely on the differences in average pay and aim to explain these. US Census data from 1998 shows that for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 73 cents. This calculation does not take into account factors such as age, education and experience. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research looked at this pay gap and considered the impact of jobs and industries which were dominated by one gender, union membership participation, and the impact of varying amounts of work experience, education and training between women and men. The pay gap then dropped to a 12 per cent difference , which still remains unexplained. Interestingly, there is no wage gap between full-time workers who are single and aged between 21-35. Amongst full-time married workers without children, the pay disparity is only three percent.

Given these statistics, the gender gap might be better described as a gap between the time spent in childcare and at paid work . “The wage gap is not about corporate discrimination but about the division of labour that happens when men and women have children” (Warren Farrell) The CNN article “Women and men: Payday” quotes studies which show that women in double income households take on most of the child-bearing responsibility and tend to work fewer hours than their male partner. This argument concludes that pay disparity can (in part) be explained by men working longer hours at certain points in their career, whilst women work less hours in order to care for the family, thereby reducing their visibility and progress in the workplace.

This is obviously just one argument in the debate, which I feel does not adequately explain why this gap between hours worked, pay and family responsibilities still exists. Finding a new balance requires a deeper look at the ambiguity within society. Helen Wilkinson, a British writer and commentator on politics and family policy, believes that we are witnessing a historic shift in the relationships between women and men . The labour market has changed; moving from a manufacturing base to a service economy staffed by “knowledge workers”. The dominant management style has changed from a reliance on rigid hierarchies of control to looser, more team-based approaches. Wilkinson argues that the traditional feminine attributes of flexibility, conflict resolution, networking and communication skills have found their place in this new workplace.

Whilst there is undoubtedly still gender inequality, both economically and in terms of power, Wilkinson believes that the key division of the future is going to be between those with skills and those without. The feminization of society is challenging men to re-evaluate their own roles in the public and private spheres. Women’s freedom and access to the labour market requires economic and social policies that facilitates new models of male behaviour. For example, she argues that offering men unpaid paternity leave is meaningless, given that men are the higher earners and therefore less likely to forfeit salary for leave. Society must recognize that in an era when both women and men work, there needs to be a new balance of work and family for all parties. In summary, I hope this article has uncovered some of the ambiguity and problems lurking in the gender gap!

Tags: pwg, writing
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