Welcoming Men as Caretakers Can Help Close the Gender Pay Gap

Viewing the gender gap as not just as a female issue but as a societal issue can help ensure a more equitable society where both men and women are able to exercise their rights fully to work and family without feeling shortchanged or discriminated against.
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Father and daughter reading
Father and daughter reading

Two important elections have been making headlines in the international arena: the American Presidency and the United Nations Secretary General. Neither position has ever been held by a woman. In the first, there is clearly a frontrunner woman candidate in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and in the second, there are at least four women among those vying for the position. But it seems like an uphill task to get people to consider a woman for these jobs even if she is the best person for it.

We see this kind of questioning of women's capabilities every day globally as women are routinely treated as second-class citizens. As the annual Global Gender Gap report shows, overall compared with men, women have limited rights, access to education, finance and health facilities. Further, they receive lower pay and compensation for the work they do.

It is quite depressing that the new report released by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC) indicates that the gender pay gap will not close in the U.S. until 2059. Though there's been a lot of progress since the 1960s when women started entering the workforce in large numbers, the current 21% gap amounts to at least half a million dollars difference across a person's career.

The gender pay gap is a global problem. At the end of 2015, data suggested that women made a global average of $11,000 compared with $20,500 for men. This gap is caused by many factors, including women traditionally being seen solely as "home makers" and "mothers" who take time off from work to have babies and look after them. They are seen as "primary caregivers" but "secondary workers" who are not fully available to contribute to a formal career. As a result, they are often passed over for important assignments, promotions and significant roles in their career. Further, if there is no affordable childcare, they may opt to just stay out of the workforce while their children are young.

Alarmingly, while women's workforce participation is increasing in many countries, it's not in all. In my country India, women's participation in the labor force fell from just over 37 per cent in 2004-05 to 29 per cent in 2009-10. Though the number of women graduating has increased 116% between 2001 and 2011, almost half the women chose to drop out of work by mid-career to stay at home because of systemic social discrimination issues and the proverbial glass ceiling.

Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee says, "In many ways, the pay gap is due to obsolete social norms and inequitable workplace policies that make women pay a steep price for becoming mothers and caring for their children."

In order to change the social norms, we must first begin by breaking down stereotypical roles of parents and ensure that both parents are equal caregivers. Both parents must avail of parental leave thus sharing the burden of not only caring for the new-born child and adjusting to the change in family but also the time away from work which can be extremely agonizing for working women.

In Sweden for example, parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave of which 240 days must be taken by each of the parents. Parental leave can be taken up until a child turns eight. The leave entitlement applies to each child (except in the case of multiple births), so parents can accumulate leave from several children. Should a father -- or a mother for that matter -- decide not to take them, they cannot be transferred to the partner.

This is a great incentive to promote gender equality and breakdown stereotypes. In 2014, fathers took a quarter of their leave to be with their children. This in turn has a positive impact on how children view traditional roles of parents, they have a closer bonding with their fathers and mothers and a well-rounded upbringing

As fathers would go through the same anxiety as mothers when they re-enter the workforce after taking leave for parental responsibilities, it might encourage male managers and supervisors to be more sensitive to the needs of new parents at the workplace and understand the need for greater flexibility in adjusting work-life integration.

A new McKinsey Global Institute report finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women's equality but the public, private, and social sectors will need to act to close gender gaps in work and society. If India can increase women's labor force participation by 10 percentage points (68 million more women) by 2025, India could increase its GDP 16 percent.

To be sure, many more men are opting to take paternity leave and look after their children, an example that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to set by taking two months of paternity leave recently, but they often are in a minority. This can make it challenging for them when many childcare efforts are geared toward women. We need to do more to welcome men as caretakers.

Viewing the gender gap as not just as a female issue but as a societal issue can help ensure a more equitable society where both men and women are able to exercise their rights fully to work and family without feeling shortchanged or discriminated against.

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