Picking up a mop and other practical things men can do to end the gender pay gap

by Stephen Tall on January 14, 2016

There’s a really good article today by Helen Lewis in the Guardian with the straightforward headline: Yes, there is one great contribution men can make to feminism: pick up a mop.

She quotes an IPPR report to summarise the practicalities of her argument:

“On most key issues, the route to modern feminist goals must pass through fathers. Men should work more flexibly, take greater responsibility for caring for their children and their homes, and have the right to reserved parental leave.”

This hit home today for two reasons.

The first is my partner, who’s been on maternity leave for the past year, has returned to work today. I say returned, but actually she has a new job, her previous employer having been unwilling to offer her flexible working hours. Many of her mum friends have encountered similar problems. It’s not male bosses that’s the problem (mostly in these cases they’re women); rather, it’s a system which assumes flexibility means unreliability.

The second is that I’ve just started a new commute with new working hours, my employer thankfully being an enlightened one that recognises my productivity is not solely a function of 9-5 office-presenteeism. This means I can share the nursery runs and do my bit. Had they not been willing to, the load would almost certainly have fallen back on my partner, and I’d have become yet another shrugging-my-shoulders-“what-can-yer-do” kind of bloke whose life is free to continue as before.

I don’t count myself a feminist, not least for fear of turning into one of those men who uses the statement as a bragging right. But I have always taken equality seriously. And I have become more acutely aware over the past year quite how tilted in my sex’s favour are the rules of life.

One of the reasons the annual argument about the gender pay gap irritates me is that it rarely seems to address the real problem: our attitudes to work once employees become parents/carers.

I’m sure there are still companies and bosses who, consciously or not, discriminate against female employees. In fact, I know first-hand that there are. But the fact that women in their 20s earn more than their male peers suggests the bigger problem here is the so-called “mummy penalty” – as women are the primary child-caregivers, they are the ones who usually end up sacrificing their careers and therefore their pay, either in part or in whole.

If that is a free choice, there’s no problem. But if the woman feels she has no real option, then it is a problem. What it shouldn’t be is her problem alone. Men should be asking to work flexibly to ensure we are properly sharing domestic responsibilities (and not just the tokenistic daddy day-care) – the more of us do it, the more normal it will become.

Of course, we actually have to want to do it, rather than find work is a convenient excuse to stick to our comfortable routine. True, “men should work more flexibly and take greater responsibility for caring for their children and their homes.” The real question is how we turn should into agree we will.