Society is a system of compromises and balances. Fundamentally, it exists because a group accepts the benefits of scale outweigh the loss of individual freedoms. However, the balance sometimes appears off, and proposed solutions can seem to tilt it the wrong way. This often leads to two sides – each of which can justify their stance – arguing over which set of ethical rules is “more” ethical and an eventual “losing” side. Perhaps, instead of trying to rank these competing arguments, we should be looking not at the imbalance itself, but at the factors that feed into it.
Imagine two people: Andrew and Bob. Both of them have the same skills and join Normal Economic Company Ltd at the same time to do the same job. They both work equally hard and rise together. Two years later, Bob takes a two-year-long break from work to build a children’s hospital in Africa. Andrew continues to work for the company and rises further. When Bob returns to work, his position and salary are lower than Andrew’s. Is this fair to Bob? Would it be fair to Andrew to apply pressure to companies to pay Bob and others who chose to take time away from their job the same as Andrew and people who don’t?
Now imagine four people: Andrew, Bob, Celia, and Dora. All of them have the same skills and join Normal Economic Company Ltd at the same time to do the same job. They both work equally hard and rise together. Two years later, Bob takes a two-year-long break to build a children’s hospital in Africa, and Dora takes a two-year-long break to have and start raising a child. Andrew and Celia continue to work for the company and rise further. When Bob and Dora return to work, their position and salary are lower than Andrew’s and Celia’s. Is this unfair, and if so, to whom?
The pay gap between men and women is different, both in terms of scale and ethical clarity, if taking time off due to having a child is taken into consideration.
However, that doesn’t mean the system is fair. Biology imposes an asymmetric burden on women in reproduction, so – barring vast improvements in medical science – any ethical system of leave will have to allow women rights in respect of that burden that men do not get. But, much of child rearing isn’t subject to biology: men can run baths, change nappies, provide stimulus activities, guard against eagles, and so forth; so, there is no inherent need to provide women a right to be paid for that time that men don’t have.
Of course, there are already employers and jurisdictions that allow both parents to share a pool of mater/pater-nity leave. Unfortunately, these haven’t resulted in a significant drop in length of career gaps by women because there is still the social stigma of men taking too much interest in child care. So, instead of attacking gendered pay gaps (with the issue that women who’ve chosen to work rather than have children are as punished as men), attacking the stigma of men taking 50% of the domestic responsibilities and child care needs might replace the gendered pay gap with a pay gap that relates to parenthood-sans-gender.
Or perhaps we could go a step further (and, bonus points for anyone who considered whether or not it was unfair that Dora would have access to maternity leave whereas Bob would receive no payments for his choice to provide care to other people’s children): replace child leave with social-act leave. Building hospitals is a social good. Raising children with one or both parents present is a social good. Does society necessarily need to value one over the other? Or is sacrificing for charity as deserving as sacrificing for one’s children?
This removal of the divide between child care and other socially valuable actions might also break down the stigma of men taking time for child care. A system that doesn’t differentiate between time spent digging wells or repairing houses (things that are often perceived as “manly”) and time spent caring for one’s child, makes – through mental contagion – child rearing seem more manly too. And, labels have power: if, instead of paternity leave, a man is taking Social Responsibility Leave or Hero Days then he has a status-affirming label to use when telling people he won’t be available for a particular period.
These ideas are high-level: working out a system that allowed everyone a fair amount of leave, could handle unexpected pregnancies in a way that wasn’t inequitable, didn’t impose a horrific burden on employers or the taxpayer, and so forth requires extensive analysis. But, it does show that the way past the issue of gendered pay gaps might be to take not one but several steps back from the apparent problem.
And, if it can generate interesting approaches for one social issue, might it not do the same for others?