Reports that it is are misleading. Here, Jessica Abrahams chats to three women who still face very real penaltiesby / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Several years ago, I was asked to give a careers talk at my old school to a group of students aged between 16 and 18, to give them a sense of what it’s like to be a journalist and the usual routes into the industry. When questions were invited at the end, one girl raised her hand and asked about the problems of balancing the demands of work and family life. I wrinkled my nose—“Aren’t you a bit young to be worrying about that?” was my first thought. These were, after all, GCSE and A-Level students. But it showed just how early career-minded women start to think about this issue.
Recently, a report was published by the think tank Resolution Foundation suggesting that the gender pay gap for women in their 20s has shrunk to just 5 per cent—half the difference experienced by their mothers. The gap is often difficult to agree on due to differences in calculations but the report was widely received as good news, and many newspapers declared the pay gap to have virtually disappeared for women of the millennial generation.
Yet the report suggested only that the gap is close to being closed for the youngest group of workers—there is no evidence to suggest that this will remain the case as those workers grow older. It is not surprising that the gap should be narrowest for the youngest employees—before the effects of uneven promotions, bonus payments and family life have taken their toll—and the report’s authors point out that it begins to widen significantly from the age of 30 onwards. Millennials are already experiencing a pay gap of 9 per cent by the time they hit 30, almost double the average of those slightly younger than them, according to the report. By the age of 40, the gap has reached 25 per cent, resulting in a “lifetime earnings penalty” for women of all generations.
There are many reasons for this but the authors point to “the old challenges associated with having children” as one of them. Much has been written about the “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood bonus”—the statistics that show that having children has a negative impact on a woman’s earning potential but a positive impact on a man’s, the result of a combination of factors including straightforward prejudice, inadequate workplace structures to help employees cope with the demands of family life, and the fact that women continue to take on a greater share of the domestic burden.
Perhaps less recognised is the effect that this knowledge has on younger women—such as the teenage girl who questioned me at the school—and the choices they make even before they reach motherhood. It is a constant concern for many women in their 20s, who often feel compelled to make compromises in their career choices or to carefully plan their family hopes around their career ambitions in an attempt to minimise the impact.
Prospect asked three women who are yet to start families about how they see the issue and their plans for the future.
Marte Boonen, 24, postgraduate student
Having been brought up by a single mother, having both children and a full-time career always seemed like an incredibly difficult thing to manage. I was always encouraged to study and to make sure I could provide for myself, and when I was younger it seemed natural to me that this meant that family life would come in second place.
Now that I have almost finished my MA and I am looking into my career prospects, I still feel that having a family and a career are only compatible if I am willing to compromise somehow. I love my field of study and the research I am doing, and staying in academia would mean I would have to travel a lot, since long-term employment is scarce. I am ambitious career-wise, and if I think about pregnancy and children, I feel like it would mean having to compromise on my career, even if both my partner and I would take care of the children.
Even now, for men it seems much more feasible to have a family and a fully-fledged career. My male peers often seem to regard family as a fun aspect of future life. Maybe I am worrying too much, but it seems so difficult to make it work.
Grace McDermott, 26, working in corporate marketing
Since college it has been clear to me that motherhood and professionalism are still at odds in a lot of ways, mainly due to workplace structures that make it difficult for women with children to progress professionally at the same rate as their male counterparts.
I have a Master’s degree, am nearly finished with my PhD and have worked in the marketing/ advertising industry for around four years. I don’t yet have children, but I hope to one day. I love working and do not intend to stop when I have children. However, if I want both, I believe it’s going to require several years of planning, saving and a supportive work environment.
My experience is that the staff in my industry are predominantly female at the entry level but with far fewer women, and especially women with children, in higher level roles. At a previous job, I watched several female co-workers take maternity leave and return to work for short periods of time, only to be pushed out as a result of their inability to work late. In contrast, the working fathers in the same office were applauded for being “good dads” when they left on time for a school run. It’s common to hear women in my industry talking about having to “plan ahead” if they want children, and even in their twenties they can end up prioritising jobs that will give them the flexibility and employment benefits to allow them to have children, instead of pursuing the jobs that will give them the most fulfilment or the highest salary.
At the moment, work is peachy for me but it’s clear from the other women I know in this industry that juggling motherhood and work is really difficult, and often unfair. Knowing this makes me feel as though I will have to work harder than my male counterparts to achieve the same results in the workplace, both now and going forward.
Natasha Culzac, 30, journalist turned model
My late twenties was probably an awful time to change careers. I’d somehow metamorphosed into a working model and aspiring actress despite being certain, five years earlier, that journalism was my true calling. Being a “budding” anything just at the time when everyone else around you is settling down is a bit unnerving. I feel youthful and full of aspirations which, should I suddenly become pregnant, would be thrown entirely into disarray. My work life is extremely exciting at the moment and I don’t want it to grind to a startling halt just yet.
Unfortunately for modern women, although our options throughout our twenties appear limitless, the realisation that having a child results in one or two years out of our social or professional loops is demoralizing. It’s obviously why many of us, particularly those of us in fast-paced cities, choose to have families much later than perhaps we desire ourselves.
I’m also sensitive to the nature of my work in that models and actresses are expected to be available at the drop of the hat—how would that work with a child? Not to mention the ridiculous beauty expectations laid on people in the entertainment industries – it sounds horrifically superficial but I have no idea how my body will respond to such a huge change and whether I will still have the confidence to carry on doing the work I’m currently doing.
I know it’s something that I will need to face sooner or later—I do want children eventually, but at the moment I’m happy to see it as a future event rather than an impending one.