Why Are Straight Women Earning Less?

Maybe sexist dynamics within heterosexual couples cause straight women to slip down the earning scale.

Lesbians will never view their career as second fiddle to a male partner’s because they don’t have male partners.”

I was reading a piece by Una Mullally in the Irish Times yesterday morning, and the above two lines stopped me. The article is about the gender pay gap and the fact that lesbian women earn more than straight women. It’s a really interesting read – there’s research out there to show the pay gap exists, but not so much to explain the reasons behind it, so Una Mullally surmises and tries to come up with explanations. Lots of them make sense but when I got to the part about “second fiddle”, instinctively it felt wrong.

Or maybe I’m wrong? I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem to me that women generally view their careers as secondary to those of their male partners.

For a start, the pay gap figures don’t take into consideration that women often work fewer hours – total earnings are treated like for like. So for example, when I was working a five-day-week and my husband worked a five-day-week, and we both earned pretty much the same salary, there was no gap.

When I went to four days, I earned 20% less than my husband, and in the statistics, that’s treated as a 20% pay gap. But I switched to four days because I desperately wanted an extra day with the kids – not because my husband had a bigger job and I had to take the hit. It was all me, and luckily, my husband supported the decision.

Most of my friends and most of the school-gate mums and most of the women I’ve met through blogging about working parenthood work some kind of semblance of part-time. Very often a four-day-week, but lots of other flex options too – five mornings, three days, job share, or running a business from home.

This is anecdotal – I have no research to back it up – but it seems to me that most choose this because they want it. They want it for themselves and for their families. I’m sure there are some cases where a male partner’s “big” job necessitates a family decision, one that results in a female partner taking a step back, and likewise, there are families that do it the other way around, because the female partner’s job has more demands, more earning power.

Office mum work family balance

Admittedly, I’m reacting to this in a personal capacity. Having taken redundancy this year to switch from working in the IFSC to working at my kitchen table, I’m a prime candidate for the “second fiddle” comment. So I’m feeling defensive. But just like my earlier four-day-week, this was a decision we made together as a family – one that I proposed, and one which my husband supported. Not because I’m martyring myself for his career, but because he’s taking a chance on mine.

I don’t think there are many women reluctantly taking a step back because they’re playing second fiddle; because of “sexist dynamics” within their relationships. I like a lot of what Una Mullally writes, but when it comes to working mothers, I prefer what Aine Lawlor said at a Women on Air event earlier this year. She was talking about why there are fewer women in top jobs, and said:

Women are more likely to step back and question if it’s really worth giving everything up, or if we should go and climb Everest.

And as she said, your Everest might be a hobby or a project or a start-up business or time with your kids. I’m at the base of my Everest, and so far, I like the view. Not a second fiddle in sight.

Mt Everest: image credit Wikipedia
Mt Everest: image credit Wikipedia
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4 thoughts on “Why Are Straight Women Earning Less?”

  1. I totally agree with your stance Andrea. Our situation was similar in that I moved to a 4 day we and earn less than my husband as a result. Our jobs are on a par. Career wise I would be more ambitious but I am also, for the time being, more interested in spending time with the children and making sure the household runs smoothly.
    My assumption on the pay gap between lesbians and straight women would be that fewer lesbians have children and as such are more likely to work full time.
    I know of very few women who play second fiddle to their husband. In fact, in the cases I know of personally where the husband has a big job, the wives have given up work entirely.
    Fionnuala recently posted…My Irish Design WishlistMy Profile

  2. Yes Fionnuala, I think it’s very common that even the most ambitious women take a few years doing something less than full-time work. Everyone says “your priorities change” and it’s one of those things that’s slightly annoying but completely true.

  3. I realLy like this. I’m very similar to you, in my current role I chose a 4 day week and like you my husband supported it. I do think that women are more likely to make that choice than men, and I do think that is because more of the parenting usually falls to women so it’s mothers who cut their hours at the paid job because the other job has become more demanding. I don’t blame the men though, and I don’t play violin at all.
    Sinead @bumbles of rice recently posted…A Sunny MomentMy Profile

  4. I completely agree. It was the same in our house, we took the decision of who works and when together, and, once the family started to grow, it was me pushing to give up work for a few years. Now my husband is great for helping out with childcare when I need to work but it was a joint decision around children that led to my change in income, not because I was playing second fiddle.
    Naomi Lavelle recently posted…The flying ant invasionMy Profile

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