Wage Inequality: How Not to Fix It

There was a great little piece on Business Insider this morning about Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech at the Oscars. It got me thinking.

Let me start by saying that I am a firm believer in equality in all areas: male/female, black/white, whatever. Whilst there are undoubtedly differences in individuals’ capabilities that’s what makes the world an interesting place and there is absolutely no justification for discriminating in favour or against someone simply because of their gender, race or any other trait.

I’m just not at all convinced that legislation is always helpful. Take the following example. When my two sons were younger, they attended the local Preparatory School. One of the women teachers there went on maternity leave several times, returning briefly between each stint to teach for maybe a term. This is difficult for both the kids and the school to manage: they have to expend management time locating & interviewing temporary teachers to cover the role, and then even if those teachers are fantastic, they have to let them go when the original employee deigns to return. The kids likewise have to adjust to repeated changes of teacher. Like it or not, as chief executive of a business like that, wouldn’t part of you be saying to yourself (not out loud, for obvious reasons), “Why hire women [who go on maternity leave] when we can hire men [who generally don’t]?”

This is not an isolated example. In a small business where perhaps there is a single employee in a key role (say, specialist lawyer, CFO, etc) how can they deal effectively with this situation? Often, by not hiring a women of child-bearing age in the first place. I’m pretty sure this is a common occurrence – it would certainly help explain the gender pay gap.

Now, I fully support the idea of both parents wishing to spend time with their children, especially when they are pre-school age, as there’s plenty of evidence that this is a great thing from a social and educational point of view. Giving fathers the same rights as mothers to take parenting leave is all very well — but it doesn’t solve the problem, it makes it even more difficult for small businesses to know what to do.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn 23 February 2015