Attitudes are changing, but there’s still a way to go

The latest survey of social attitudes shows some changes, but women are still expected to do most of the childcare.

crazy kids and stressed mum


Changes in social attitudes take time, so we are told and this appears to be true. While the latest British Survey of Social Attitudes shows movement on shared parental leave – although this is not backed up by actual take-up for a variety of reasons – and while there have been significant changes in attitudes towards the model of mum staying at home looking after the kids vs dad as main breadwinner, it is still assumed by the majority – albeit a slim one at 51% – that mothers should be the main carers of pre-school kids. Only 16% favour an equal share of childcare responsibilities.

Those attitudes permeate everyday life and are a big factor in so-called maternal guilt. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation to some extent. Those attitudes underlie many of our laws and practices. Unpicking and challenging these will be required to change attitudes and vice versa.

It is the same with regard to issues such as promotion and the lack of women in senior roles in many organisations. A survey out this week from Cranfield School of Management shows that many companies are parachuting women non-executives into boards, creating the appearance of greater gender diversity – in part because they know they are under scrutiny – but little is changing with regard to the female pipeline to the top. It is not just a question of channelling more women into the type of positions that lead to the top, but also challenging why those type of positions are the ones that count. Do things need to always stay the same in a world where everything is in flux?

The British Survey of Social Attitudes has this year broached the subject of equal pay and the gender pay gap, linking it to more men being in senior roles. The survey shows, unsurprisingly, that women are more likely to think that not getting the same pay for doing a job of equal value is wrong than men. The gender pay question is very simplistic. I was asked to comment on the survey without seeing any information about it. “Would you comment on changing attitudes to women?” I was asked. That is one big subject with no detailed information about what the survey was saying.

Surveys are difficult to get right. For instance, how can you get something as complex as, say, the gender pay gap into one question? Later I was given a little more information – graduates were more likely to think the gender pay gap was not a bad thing than non-graduates. This prompts the question not just of why but of how the question was actually phrased in the first place – information which was not provided to me at the time. It is difficult to comment on something complex without any idea of where that information is coming from, particularly if it is only for a sound byte interview.

I’ve now read the survey and the idea that is put across is that graduates are more likely to end up in senior positions so are less likely to challenge the status quo. I’m not sure that is what the survey is saying, though. The actual question asked seems to have been whether it is wrong for men to be paid more than women in a company where men hold most of the senior positions and women hold most of the junior positions. There may be any number of reasons why someone might say that it is not wrong – the prime one being do you believe people in more senior positions should get more pay for greater responsibility and, presumably, experience in different roles regardless of whether they are male or female. The issue of the massive gap in many organisations between executive pay and the rest of the workforce is another issue, although not unrelated to the gender pay gap.

The survey question did not go into any of the complex reasons for the gender pay gap – barriers to progress, bias, gendered work roles, caring responsibilities, unequal parenting, attitudes to flexible working etc, etc. It simply asked if it is wrong for senior people – mostly men – to be paid more than junior people – mostly women. It doesn’t really tell you anything at all and it doesn’t really do anything to promote greater awareness of what the gender pay gap is because unless we understand the causes of it we are not going to even begin to tackle it.

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