The disappearing thirtysomething gender pay gap

The ONS published its 2011 data on the gender pay gap last week. The figures show the continuing gradual reduction of the gap between women’s and men’s pay. Much of the discussion has focused on the opening up of a slight pay gap between full-time twentysomething women and men. For the first time, the gap favours women. This has been coming for some time. By the middle of the last decade, the full-time gender pay gap had all but disappeared for those in their twenties and the relative performance of women and men at degree level was bound to show through sooner or later.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the drop in the full-time pay gap for those in their thirties. Last time I looked at this, using 2006 data from this ONS study, the full-time pay gap between men and women opened up sharply for those in their thirties. This being the point at which women start to have children, it is reasonable to assume that motherhood, and the fact that the resulting childcare duties are rarely equally shared, is largely responsible for the gender pay gap. Other data in the study support this conclusion. Pay gaps are wider the more children people have and there is no gap between single man and single women of whatever age. (See previous post.) Women with children tend to commute for shorter distances, which also limits their options.

Since the 2006 study, though, the thirtysomething full-time pay gap has reduced to the point where it has almost disappeared. The ONS only started publishing these figures in 2009 but an educated guess, based on the  above graph, would be that the thirties pay gap was probably around 7 percent in 2006. Since then, it has dropped to this year’s 1.1 percent.

Gender pay difference for median hourly earnings, excluding overtime       Percentage full-time pay difference (men/women) by age band     

Why should this be? Perhaps childcare is better, or maybe employers are adopting more flexible policies. Then again, it could be that women are delaying having children so the motherhood pay gap opens up later.

Could some of it be due to a shift in social attitudes? Many of the women now in the thirties cohort would have been in their twenties in 2006; part of that group used to earning as much, if not more, than their partners. Maybe they are demanding more of their employers and spouses, refusing to down-shift and take the lower paid jobs closer to home and the school run.

Of course, the overall pay gap is still there, showing that a lot of thirtysomething women are still opting to take part-time work, which, as a rule, pays lower hourly rates. But the fall in the disparity between full-time male and female earnings among those in their 30s is pronounced.

It’s too early to say whether this indicates a change in social attitudes or, indeed, whether the trend will continue. And it’s waaaay to early to make predictions like this. The reduction in employment levels and a prolonged pay freeze in the public sector, which employs a disproportionate number of women, could throw the trend into reverse or, at least, stop it in its tracks.

All the same, it is an interesting development. I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who has any more information on this or, for that matter, any theories as to why the thirtysomething pay gap seems to be going the way the twentysomething one did.

Answers, suggestions, data and theories (crackpot of otherwise) in the usual place please.

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3 Responses to The disappearing thirtysomething gender pay gap

  1. Pingback: The disappearing thirtysomething gender pay gap - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. I think this this data might say more about our social environment than we realise. I’m not a researcher or data junkie (well maybe a little) but here are some things I’m seeing which fit in with this theory….

    Looking at the 1975 data above for those around their early 20s, the % diff is approx late teens. Roll forwards 31 yrs and look at those in their early 50s on the 2006 data and the % diff is similarly around late teens & very early 20s. Could this show that the gender pay difference for a generation perpetuates throughout our working life but is impacted by say childcare needs? It’s a bit of a leap of faith but it could start to indicate that the current % diff in the 18-30 range may remain similarly low throughout the careers of this generation? Perhaps shifts in social attitudes influence our early careers and create the norm for our generation. It’s a thought…

    …if valid, perhaps some of the seeds planted over time are coming to fruition – it just takes time for it to become manifest in the overall workforce. This is something I wrote about earlier this year here http://bit.ly/vA33EQ .

    In terms of social change, my own experience of working with younger generations of managers in particular is that there is an increasing expectation of equality that is held by both men and women alike. This world view must impact on behaviours and gender pay differences. There’s some more source material and related thinking on this I’ve written about here http://bit.ly/v3Wqhn .

    Crackpot theory? Well I’m up for critical review so would welcome your thoughts!

  3. The King of Wrong says:

    It’s a bit fuzzy, but there are definite and identifiable demographic trends for the cohorts. As the Baby Boomers are nearing retirement, clinging onto the top jobs (and the peak of their earning power) by demanding an end to retirement ages, the last of Generation X is hitting their mid 30s, and Generation Y are entering the workforce in significant numbers.

    Both Gen X and Gen Y have grown up after equal pay laws were enacted, have started on equal wages, and expect to be paid on merit. To most, the idea that someone would be paid less because of their sex is a strange anachronism and, since they’re already in lower- and middle-management roles, they act accordingly. We know the score, we know which of our colleagues are doing good work and which aren’t, and we expect that this is reflected in pay.

    Gen Y, in particular, are more educated (due to a higher education push in the late 1990s), more tech savvy (having used computers throughout schooling), very mobile as a result, extremely open about what they’re earning and how they’re being treated, and have no expectation of a “job for life” or even much loyalty from their employers. Gen Y folks know that their skills have value, and – while they have a lot to learn (and will admit so) – they won’t tolerate being expected to “pay their dues” to show loyalty to an employer who will, equally reasonably, send their jobs offshore if the business case is right. It’s a rational transaction: useful work for a fair wage.

    Most of my friends are Gen Y and I’ve heard things openly discussed that would give Boomers heart attacks. Substantially everywhere bans discussion of compensation, but the first text message after an appraisal is always “So how did you do?”…

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