Last week Nick Clegg made a valiant effort to address the pervasive challenge for modern working parents, striving to find the right career-family balance - including announcing a more flexible system of maternity-paternity leave. It is one of the most relevant issues for young families in Britain. The coalition would do well to grasp it in place of Labour’s outdated and obsolete ‘equality and diversity’ agenda.
Take the gender pay
gap. The fascinating thing is just how sexist its champions have become.
The government’s decision to abandon mandatory gender pay audits,
under Labour’s Equality Act, sparked a wave of soul-searching – almost
exclusively by women. It is almost taboo for a man to question the
assertion that the rapidly dwindling pay gap is the result of
discrimination, rather than genuine choice. The debate has been consumed
by the prejudice it seeks to purge.
Yet, research shows the pay gap has halved since the 1970s.
Office of National Statistics data in December showed that, since 1997,
the difference between full-time median earnings has fallen from 17% to
10% - and the shrinkage is accelerating. So much for the Equality and
Human Right’s Commission’s claim last October that progress is ‘grinding
to a halt’.
Look further at the data available. According to research for the
Institute for Economic Affairs, women in their twenties earn 1% less
than men, single women a shade more. Gay men earn more than straight
men, lesbian women more than heterosexual women. Does that sound like a
society riddled with discrimination? In fact, the gender pay gap also
reflects the higher numbers of women in work in Britain compared to
other European countries. Keeping women out of work is one of the
easiest ways to bridge the gap: Swaziland and Sir Lanka have the lowest
pay gaps. Meanwhile, pay is just one of the terms of employment. Men
work longer hours, enjoy their jobs less, commute further and are more
likely to get the sack.
While we have some of
the toughest anti-discrimination laws in the world, we are blind to some
of the most flagrant discrimination – against men. From the cradle to the grave, men are getting a raw deal.
Men work longer hours, die earlier, but retire later than women. That
won’t be fixed for another seven years. One reason women are left
‘holding the baby’ is anti-male discrimination in rights of
maternity/paternity leave – which Clegg wants to tackle. Then there are
‘pre-nups’, recording the wishes of partners before they get married.
Those wishes were serially ignored in this country, until last year –
when one was enforced in favour of a woman, loaded German heiress Katrin
Radmacher. Meanwhile, young boys are educationally disadvantaged
compared to girls, and divorced or separated fathers are systematically
ignored by the courts. A father turned up to one of my constituency
surgeries, complaining that dozens of court orders requiring access
rights had been flouted by his ex-wife. He asked me to write to
Ministers, not because he harboured any hope of changing the situation,
but so he could show his children he had tried everything when they
Then there is the more subtle sexism. Men caused the banking crisis. Men earn more because they are more assertive in pay negotiations. One FT commentator recently complained that: ‘High-flying women are programmed to go for high-flying men. Most men aren’t attracted to women who are more successful than they are.’ Can you imagine the outrage if such trite generalisations were made about women, or other minorities? Feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots.
You can’t have it both
ways. Either you believe in equality or you
don’t. If you buy into the whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From
Venus theory of gender difference – with all its pseudo science - you
can’t then complain about inequalities of outcome that flow both ways
from those essentially sexist distinctions.
Britain’s not perfect,
and we will never eradicate all human prejudice. But, we have reached a
stage where the differences between men and women in our society are
less reflective of overt discrimination, and more their common challenge
of trying to find the right way to earn a
decent quality of life for their family, whilst sparing some time to
enjoy it. That means taking a consistent approach to equality, ditching
outdated gender warfare and finding practical solutions to the
challenges couples go through together.
In some cases, it will beg more questions than it answers: the surge in
career-minded women landing top jobs has reduced social mobility,
because so many are middle-class. In other areas, we might be pleasantly
surprised. Making maternity leave transferable (without increasing it,
to avoid extra burdens on business) would give men greater equality, and
free up women to share their career-family compromises with their other
halves – if they choose. The phenomenon of young couples on middle
incomes both doing a four day week, to save on childcare, looks set to
rise. It makes economic, as well as egalitarian, sense.
family-friendly policies could help exhausted families struggling to strike a sensible work-life balance. Critics mocked the
idea of transferable tax allowances for couples as socially regressive
and financially insignificant. Yet, transferable tax allowances for
parents with children under five would support women who choose to stay
home, when their children are young, while helping them save for
childcare, if and when they choose return to work. A little tax relief
would go a long way.
Young British couples are tired of the equality bandwagon, dreamt up in the 1960s, pitting men and women against each other. We need consistent equality for men and women, an end to ‘soft’ feminist bigotry and support for hard-working families trying to juggle competing priorities in their hectic daily lives. Maybe it’s time men started burning their briefs, to put an end once and for all to what Emmeline Pankhurst used to call ‘the double standard of sex morals.’