Depressed by reports from the World Economic Forum that it’ll take 170 years for women to be paid the same as men? Stop whingeing, hand over the baby and get back to work. That appears to be the message from business leader, Lady Barbara Judge.
Lady Judge, the first female chair of the Institute of Directors claimed "I know it’s counter-cultural but I think long maternity breaks are bad for women”. She cited the American system, whereby sizeable companies only have to provide 12 weeks of (unpaid) leave, as meaning women "don’t come off the tracks”. She practised what she preaches: The British-American lawyer had just 12 days off when her son was born.
Accordingly, the Institute of Economic Affairs has also said we should “stop making a song and dance” about the gender pay gap. The think tank claims it’s all about what it calls "different lifestyle choices”: lower pay is a just trade-off for taking on caring responsibilities, and the ability to give birth.
Is that fair? The fact is, motherhood can be a big stumbling block. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the gulf in gender pay opens up after kids arrive, so that mothers ultimately earn 33% less than men per hour - in effect, working for free from 1st September to the end of the year.
But Lady’s Judge is letting employers off the hook; her theory that women are to blame for taking maternity leave holds less water than a poundshop nappy. The annual Gender Pay Gap study from the World Economic Forum shows the US slipping to 45th out of 144 countries, due to a lower estimate of women’s incomes and stagnating participation in the labour force, while the UK came in at number 20. Just 4% of CEO’s of America’s largest companies, the Fortune 500, are female. In the UK, the figure for FTSE 100 bosses is (an admittedly still paltry) 7%.
I’ve had babies on both side of the Atlantic. Many new mothers I met in the US were either forced to return to work before they were physically ready, or had already resigned themselves to stepping away from their careers for many years. Tales of battling for recognition, promotion and just reward are equally common from mum (mom) friends on both sides of the water.
Many ideas for narrowing the divide were put forward when I chaired a discussion on the gender pay gap recently at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Lawyer Miriam Gonzales Durantes has championed the need to change gender stereotypes of careers via her "Inspiring Women" campaign, and was refreshingly open about the need to rely on help, paid and unpaid, at home. The Sunday Times Editorial Director, Eleanor Mills, talked about attitudes towards women, and challenging perceptions in the office, as did EY partner Sayeh Ghanbari. The emphasis was as much on changing workplace culture as women stepping up (or, as Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg puts it, leaning in).
The slow yet steady rise of shared parental leave and male flexible working also came up. It didn’t get a mention from Lady Judge. Nor did any of the other reasons - from the misfortunes of illness or bereavement through to murky sabbaticals and delayed gap years- that might also lead to a lengthy absence from work. Whether she thinks those could mean mens’ careers could “come off the tracks” is unknown.