Blog home » Culture » Starting at both ends: equality’s not a zero-sum game

Starting at both ends: equality’s not a zero-sum game

It's fine to burn the candle at both ends if it was a sucky candle anyway.
It's fine to burn the candle at both ends if it was a sucky candle anyway.

This post will have a cheerful ending, but to get there we need to talk about some frustrating things. Bear with us; we will get there – in this article and in the real world.

Let’s pretend you’re a space alien. You look at planet Earth and see a society where people exchange their labour and skill for currency, and then use that currency to provide for themselves. Humans call this concept “work”. The more currency you have, the nicer your life is, so it makes sense to “work” as hard and skillfully as you can. Work also brings the innate satisfaction of overcoming intellectual challenges, so ideal human work supplies this as well as currency.  

Most humans end up in pairs by choice, and their working potential is increased because they can support one another as well as working individually. So far, so good, you might think (or whatever the equivalent phrase is on your planet).


Baby blues

A big issue is procreation. One member of each pair has to carry the baby but, provided it’s not heavy manual labour, humans are actually very good at working while pregnant. It’s what happens after the child is born that’s the problem. Human babies are, frankly, useless. For the first few years they need literally constant care; for a decade or more after they need careful supervision.

This is an issue because the parents only have so much time to dedicate to the child, and that time damages their ability to work. You’re making this observation in the second decade of the 21st century, and most households cannot survive on a single income. Both parents have to work.

What’s weird is that the system humans have created seems designed to force an unequal split, regardless of the humans’ actual preference on the subject. Only the part of the pair that gave birth to the child gets a lot of universally recognised time off work to look after the baby. And because that one side is expected to do the childcare, they are often undervalued and paid less at while at work, because their employers assume that they will leave to have a child at some point… or merely use this as an excuse.

The split also creates problems outside of work – bonding with the child is unequal, with one parent missing out. This has severe ramifications should the pair decide to stop being a pair, as the one who has spent the most time with the child is almost always the one chosen by human legal systems to keep custody of the child.

The humans seemed pretty bummed out about it: the working one of the pair would like to spend more time with their offspring, the child-rearing one loses out on the satisfaction and success of work, or has to do both work and childcare which seems a bit unfair. The division of labour – and the outcomes it brings – makes logical sense, given the circumstances the pairs have to work with, but it’s a dissatisfying solution.


Simple solutions from space

If you were a space alien you might think you have a solution to this. Split the childcare evenly between both parties. The negative effect on their work will be mitigated – and therefore much easier to recover from – when spread across the two of them. They’ll less frequently have to make a decision between work or childcare, and be more effective parents as a result.

If you were a space alien, therefore, you might find the continued existence of the gender pay gap and the paternity gap pretty frustrating, but you’d understand why they linger. The system is set up that so that the pairs themselves are trapped. Even when given more opportunity to take time off, the higher earnings of the non-childbearing member make this impractical for them. The childbearing member of the pair is fully aware that the system values them less, making it seem like their only “choice” is whether or not have a child in the first place.

“One problem cannot be solved without first solving the other,” you might gargle into your translation device. “And trying to fix them separately is slowing the solution down.”

In fact the gender pay gap exists independently of women’s requirements relating to childcare. Having a child just makes it worse. But the existence of the gap hamstrings efforts to extend paternity for men. It just doesn’t make sense to limit your earning potential when you’re the better paid of a pair.

And, without increased paternity – without increased childcare from men all round – the gender pay gap is going to persist in some form or another. This is because having children does damage your ability to work and earn. How could it not? The only real solution is – take a deep breath – to spread that damage around, and thereby lessen it for the people that currently suffer it the most. Maybe once it’s spread about more evenly it will stop seeming like damage. Maybe the new equilibrium will simply remove the damage entirely.


I win, you win

In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. You win, and I must lose. You lose, and therefore I win. Zero-sum thinking applies this concept to the world around us, and it’s normally an example of cognitive bias. It’s wrong, but because it’s simple lots of people subscribe to it.

Equality is not a zero-sum game. It improves performance and productivity, leading to better and more profitable outcomes. The effect of giving women an equal share of the cake is actually more cake for those who used to get the lion’s share, not less. When we spread the work out across a larger group, everyone in the group benefits. Maybe a sub-group that used to benefit the most now benefits comparatively less, but they’re still making good on the new deal.

When two problems have the same root cause – in our space alien’s observation, that’s procreation – discovering that equality is not zero-sum is useful knowledge. It suggests that our space alien was right: the overall solution to both is to equalise experience for everyone involved.

Thus, our space alien might note, although addressing two sides of a wider issue separately might be inefficient, the net result is still positive. Offering greater paternity rights – and encouraging men to take advantage – will have a diminishing effect on the gender pay gap. Working to close the gender pay gap will enfranchise more men to take greater paternity. And without the obfuscating effect of pregnancy maybe we can start really tackling the other causes of the gap… which would enfranchise paternity, which would lessen the gap etc etc. It could be a rare example of a virtuous circle.


Start at both ends

If you’re sat there thinking “this isn’t rocket science” then, well… we know. But it took us literally years to acknowledge that these problems even existed. The solution seeming simple is no guarantee that society will implement it any time soon.

What we really need is a something that addresses both issues simultaneously, to speed things up a bit…

Flexible working – yes, here’s the plug –  is an accelerant for this hypothetical virtuous circle. The more accepted and straightforward flexible working is, the easier it will be to split childcare responsibilities across both parents.

One of the reasons we’re dedicated to flexible working is because it has this effect on multiple solutions to today’s problems. Inequality works both ways, and an issue that affects one gender will always find its inverse affecting the other. While it’s practical to concentrate on the larger source of unfairness and let the other end fix itself over time, flexible working is a rare opportunity to start at both ends simultaneously.  

If you’d like to speed up this kind of problem-solving in your business, talk to us about flexible working solutions. Space aliens also welcome.

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *