Why Aren't We Talking About The Parent Pay Gap?

photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Why do stock images of working moms look so frazzled, while stock images of working dads just look like...guys at work? In a new interview with the Longest Shortest Time podcast as part of its “It’s A Real Mother” series on working motherhood, author Brigid Schulte gets to the heart of why discrimination against working moms is so deeply embedded in our culture. And while she’s at it, she pulls back the curtain on one huge myth about the pay gap: It’s not just about gender. There’s a parenting pay gap, too, and it’s bad.
Meanwhile we’re all contending with what researchers call the concept of the “ideal worker”: One who is championed for putting in 80-hour weeks, not having a personal life; who focuses on their job at the expense of everything else. So, a child-free man, stereotypically speaking.
Naturally, these expectations affect working mothers big time. But what Schulte explores in her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time, is that this exaltation of burnout is an everyone problem. “Because it's not just that ‘you have a family’ should be the only reason that you need to have time for your life. You need to have time for your life, regardless of the reason, just because you're human,” says Schulte, herself a mom of two teenagers. When she became a mother almost 20 years ago, she was told cutting back her hours at work would torpedo her career. But, did it?
“Well I don't know,” she says. “I wrote a book, I won a Pulitzer Prize, I'm directing a pretty cool program at New America — I would say not.” So there’s a bright spot. Working moms are managing to make it in spite of the systems at play. Imagine, though, if the systems were to change alongside us.
Below, Schulte diagnoses the several compounding illnesses our work culture is suffering, and offers up ways we (even as employees not making the rules) can start to cure it.

On the parenting pay gap:

"If you take similarly situated men and women in the same jobs, with the same education, with the same years of experience — so in other words two pretty much equal workers — and you look at their pay, what's really interesting is that childless men and childless women are pretty much at parity, something like 96 cents to the dollar. But if you look at mothers and fathers, that's where you see the pay gap. The pay gap between mothers and fathers is 76 cents to the dollar. So you have to look at, well, why is that? And that goes back to those cultural norms that, when a man becomes a father, he gets what economists call a ‘fatherhood bonus.’
"He gets a raise, because we think, Okay, he's going to be the provider and he's going to work harder, and he's going to be more dedicated. So we're going to give him more money and reward him for being a father. But she has a child, and we think, Oh my goodness she's going to be leaving early for the childcare pickup. She's going to be coming in late, she's going to be frazzled, she's going to come in with Snow White stickers and barf on her shoulders — which I have done. So they’re going to think that she's not as dedicated, she's not as good, she's not as smart. And so then she gets a hit."

On the “ideal worker” trope, and how it’s harmful to everyone:

"So there's absolutely truth in the fact that most mothers are incredibly time-stressed... If you look at time diary data, men spend a larger proportion of their time at work, and mothers or women spend perhaps less time at work but their days are longer, because they’re still doing two and three times the housework and childcare. Regardless of where you sit on the socioeconomic spectrum, they are still doing the majority of the care work, and that is exhausting...
"But why that is, is not just a choice. There are structural reasons for it and there are cultural reasons for it, and it's sort of like it's formed this symphony, this music that we're dancing to that we can't even hear.
"[Meanwhile, as a younger, childfree worker] you’re in early, you’re out late, you eat lunch at your desk, you take a plane at the drop of a hat when the boss says to; if there's some big report, you drop everything, you work through the night, you brag about it. That's the ideal worker: ‘I don't have a life.’ You can even see it in T-shirts in Silicon Valley, like, ‘90 hours a week and loving it.’ It’s this notion of always on, always working; that work is the most important. That's what the ideal worker has become; that’s who bosses want to recruit, who bosses want to promote. It’s someone without any caregiving responsibilities.
"And it's part of what keeps men and women frozen in these gender roles... You've got these really powerful cultural notions that are actually shaping our behavior, shaping the way that we think, and really constraining people in the choices they're able to make."

On what employers are still getting wrong:

"If you have a face-time culture, then that rewards people who are always there at the office, and if you have a culture where you have to beg for a flexible schedule, or you have to ask permission to work remotely, that work system is seen as an accommodation, and something only given to mothers. It becomes sort of like a bone you throw to a lesser worker, so that you can make your gender numbers look good but you don't really value them. [With after-work happy hours] or very early morning meetings, it's not necessarily that there's, like, this nefarious cabal out there that's working to keep women down or back, but the way that it's set up is to be very exclusive.
"The culture [in places like Denmark and France] is if you can't get your work done in 37.5 hours a week, there's something wrong with you. Whereas here, if you can't get your work done in 37.5 hours a week or 40 hours a week, Wow, you must be really important.
"So we all need this collective sigh and pause and just, like, Wait a minute, what are we doing? What are we expecting, and what is really going to get us the best work? I think that we need to start asking some really basic questions about how we've organized work, who benefits from it, and who's suffering. And I would say everyone is, and especially mothers."

Ask yourself why you’re making the decisions you are, and if it’s because you’re dancing to this unheard tune of the ‘ideal mother’ or the ‘ideal worker,’ start to be aware of that, and start to stop.

And what we can do about it:

"There are some things you can do as an individual, and sometimes that’s where you have to start, because it’s all you have the power to do. The most important thing is just stop, and ask yourself why you’re making the decisions you are, and if it’s because you’re dancing to this unheard tune of the ‘ideal mother’ or the ‘ideal worker,’ start to be aware of that, and start to stop.
"If you're a team member or a manager, watch the way that you speak. I remember getting an email at [The Washington Post], and somebody was trying to praise somebody by saying, 'Oh, she's amazing. She's worked for the past eight weekends, and she's been here all weekend long, and she's worked late every night. Isn't she amazing?' So what does that do? You, as the boss, are setting the standard, of: Oh my God, if I'm going to get praise from the boss, I better match that and exceed it.
"So, watch the language of how you dole out praise for good performance. How about, 'This was an amazing piece of work.' Or, 'Look at how great this team worked together.'
"Then, you’ve got to look at policies. I just wrote a piece called ‘The Case Against Maternity Leave,’ and everybody freaked out. But if you think that caregiving is something that only women do, then you would only offer maternity leave. And guess what you've just done? You have just reinforced the notion that only mothers give care. And if you go all the way back to the Pleistocene era, that's not the way that humans actually have evolved and survived. And what's fascinating is the newest science, whether it's brain science or looking at hormones, men are also wired for nurture.
"So companies really need to look at de-gendering their policies. You have to recognize that men and women do need time to care for others. And when you do that, it goes a long way to taking some of the stigma away that, right now, really falls on women."
Discrimination against working moms is a real mother of a problem, and it affects parents and non-parents alike. Tune in to The Longest Shortest Time for the rest of Brigid Schulte’s interview about how the American workplace works against mothers. Comment below or use #itsarealmother to share your own story of workplace BS. For more about our many paths to, through, and away from parenthood, head over to Mothership.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series