C: Photograph: Karwai Tang / UK Government (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://bit.ly/3ktvTkM)

New EU Boss: I will make sure women earn the same as men

Strong words this morning from the incoming President of the EU Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen:

That women are paid 16% less than men is a striking claim, but it is entirely misleading. For example, Frau Von Der Leyen will receive the exact same salary as her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Von Der Leyen could earn 16% less than Juncker over the course of her lifetime. In fact, in her case, it might well be more than that.

Frau Von Der Leyen spent four years not working at all, from 1992 to 1996. After giving birth to twins, she was a housewife in Stanford, California, while her husband taught at Stanford University. In the same years, Mr. Juncker was a minister in the Government of Luxembourg, and then its Prime Minister. In fact, Mr. Juncker entered politics immediately after leaving University in 1984 and has never not had a job in politics since then.

For Von Der Leyen to catch up with Juncker, she would have to be paid more than he was for doing the same job, to make up for the fact that she chose not to work for four years in the middle of her career (a choice, one should note, which has not prevented her from reaching the very pinnacle of EU political power).

It’s important to understand, when we talk about the pay gap, that we are not talking about a situation where men and women are paid differently for doing the same job. Such a situation would be manifestly unjust and would require strong action from Government to address it. What we are talking about is a situation where a man and a woman with a similar career may earn different amounts over the course of a career, primarily because of different choices made by each.

A feminist would tell you that this is because of structural inequality in society, where women are expected to work less to take care of children. And, let’s be honest, there is a nugget of truth in that. What it doesn’t take account of, though, is choice. In the case of Von Der Leyen, she herself is as qualified as her husband – she is a Doctor of Medicine, and taught at Hanover Medical School from 1998 to 2001, when she entered politics. There is absolutely no evidence whatever that she and her husband were prevented by any law, or discrimination, from reversing their roles after the birth of their children, with her working and he remaining at home.

In any case, even assuming some structural inequality, and cultural pressures being exerted on women to remain at home, more than their spouses, what possible legislative or legal remedy is there for that?

In this case, the EU President is proposing something called “pay transparency”. How this would work is that a company would be required to report the total pay for women in its employ, and the total pay for men. It could get more specific than that in some cases – for example, it could be broken down by rank – but that’s the gist of it. It contains no requirement to ensure that they pay between men and women in a company is equal, because that would be unenforceable, unless the law compelled every company to hire an exactly identical number of men and women and give them an exactly identical proportion of jobs. Imagine a situation where a construction company was compelled to hire an exactly identical number of women, or a childcare company was compelled to hire the exact same number of men. It would be absurd, and lead to a crisis in both those sectors, because there would be a shortage of employees.

So instead, the only purpose of “pay transparency” will be to try to shame companies into rigging their payrolls to increase the pay to women in their firms, on pain of public opprobrium, political investigations, and boycotts. It’s Government by threat of lynch mob.

And of course, it will do nothing whatever to address the underlying reasons for the kind of pay inequality Von der Leyen is talking about in the first place.

But can those be addressed at all? Ultimately, the only way they can be addressed is to actively use Government power to influence the choices people make. For example, shared parental leave, which is already law across most of the EU. You could go further, and make it compulsory for such leave to be equally shared between both parents – but that would be a grievous infringement on people’s right to make decisions that work for their own families.

There’s also another point, one that one cannot mention in polite society, and that is that many women, when asked, openly say that they prefer to stay at home with their children than go to work. This Gallup poll, for example, which surveyed 323,000 Americans:

The Gallup poll looked at 323,500 American adults and found most moms with kids under age 18 wish they could take care of their home and family instead of having to head to the office every day.

I wonder how Frau Von Der Leyen would have answered that poll, back in 1992.

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