When the bigger man and I first got together, I’d just started an exciting graduate job in the big city. He was a sales rep in the north, doing a relatively low paid job because he wanted a job that involved a lot of driving and gave him a company car. Oh, and kept him close to his university girlfriend (of whom we should not speak).
He followed me to the big city, and his salary crept towards mine. I bombed out of consulting into contracting, and once again was earning double what he did. I spent two years fighting my way out, while he quietly watched what I did, and decided he could do it better (and happier). He was right: I took a pay cut into public service, while he sold his soul to the city. We couldn’t be happier with our choices: our money is shared, our principles are shared. He likes that I do something worthwhile; I like living somewhere nice and buying shoes with his money.
Then the little man came along. And I went back to work. And bloody hell, this income disparity matters again. I manage a large team; I run boards; I advise our most senior management. He sits in a corner doing impressive things with databases. If we had to decide who goes to work tomorrow and who stays at home with a sick child, I should always be the one in the office. But we need him to work to pay the heating bills. In some ways it’s a burden on him: he can’t be sick, can’t meltdown and abandon everything in the knowledge that I’ll pick up the pieces. If i wanted to quit work, we’d have to make some different life decisions. If he quit, every single aspect of our life would be turned upside down.
We got here consciously. I decided to earn less; I was in a male dominated industry, but I chose to leave. I would have been successful if I’d stayed. I wouldn’t instinctively think of this as a feminist issue. Except that we aren’t alone in this decision making. Our friendship group is made primarily of intelligent, driven and focussed women, with slightly lazier, or slightly less committed other halves. And yet, in almost all cases, the men earn more.
I don’t know how we got here in the 10 years (ish) since we graduated. Five years it wasn’t the case for any of us. All the stories are different: restless men who bounce around jobs until they land in an astonishingly well paid one. Or slow and steady promotions. None of them point to simple discrimination. But they all end up in the same position: the burden of earning naturally falls on the man, so the burden of childcare falls onto the woman.
If not discrimination then, what is it? I don’t think I made any of my choices because I’m a woman. I don’t think my friends did either. But I can’t think of any overpaid industries that are female dominated. The saying goes that you can’t be what you can’t see; maybe it should be that you don’t want to be what you cannot see. It’s well know that we underpay traditionally female roles; cleaners versus binmen for example.
I don’t want to change my choices. The big man would love me to join him in his overpaid and underworked life. I would love to want to join him; but I can still remember how my soul ached every time somebody got hysterical about the speed of their server. There are days when I feel the doors that closed from these choices, the practical compromise that a lower salary brings. Today I left the big man looking after a poorly little man. I need to make today count; if he doesn’t make a miraculous recovery, the rest of the week he’s mine. That means working in evenings and nap times and falling ever further behind. The sun came out at the weekend. Please let this endless winter end soon.