The Source Of The Wage Gap? Go Ask Your Mom

The gender wage gap is really complicated — & motherhood is mostly to blame.

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A year and a half ahead of elections, we’ve come to expect our presidential candidates to — at this point — have a fairly robust platform regarding jobs, healthcare, and foreign policies. But…the gender wage gap? Not so much.
This is true even though the gender wage gap has an outsized impact on our nation’s economy. According to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, closing the gender gap would “cut poverty among working women and their families by more than half and add $513 billion to the national economy.” But sidestepping this systemic problem is no longer possible: four major presidential candidates have placed issues impacting the gender wage gap front and center, from paid family leave and universal daycare to boosting teacher pay and raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. “Hear me when I say this,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted in late March. ”Paid leave, equal pay, and affordable daycare are not just ‘women’s issues.’ These are economic issues — ones that will determine whether or not our country succeeds.”
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That we are finally tying the gender wage gap to the economy as a whole is monumental. And if you’re inclined to write off these ideas as individual policy proposals that are too weighed down by the nitty gritty to get people excited, you’re missing the bigger picture. Because what these candidates propose really amounts to a vision — and it’s a vision that zeroes in on one of the largest obstacles preventing working women’s full equality: motherhood.
While the wage gap has begun to narrow, especially for single, white, professional women in their early 20s, that near equity is short-lived. As women start to have children in their early 30s, the gap grows. Working mothers earn 75% of what their male counterparts make. Sure, you might want to reduce the cause of this pervasive gap to individual choice (women prioritize family over career, work fewer hours, seek out less competitive, high-paying industries, etc), but then how do you explain the 6% “fatherhood bonus” men receive when they become dads?

What these presidential candidates propose really amounts to a vision — and it’s a vision that zeroes in on one of the largest obstacles preventing working women’s full equality: motherhood.

It’s difficult to unravel all the reasons why working mothers face fewer job options and a widening wage gap, but it is both cultural and systemic: Among heterosexual couples, women typically take on the unpaid burden of managing the household while working full-time jobs: 271 minutes a day to a man’s 137.
Child care in the U.S. is prohibitively expensive, and couples will earmark women’s salaries to cover those costs. After all, the line of thinking goes, women typically earn less than men, so their careers are more expendable, making it more likely that the mother will quit working if the cost of child care is too high. In some states, families are spending more than 18% of their income for center-based child care, with some programs costing more than state college tuition (something Elizabeth Warren wants to change).
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Our lack of national paid family leave is yet another reason mothers face an impenetrable wage gap. Right now only 12% of women in the U.S. have access to paid maternity leave through work, and just four states offer government-sponsored paid family leave policies. Those without access to such benefits leave the workforce at a greater rate. Additional government protections — an increased national minimum wage and legislation that bans unfair or discriminatory scheduling practices for hourly workers — could also have a huge impact on closing the gap, and helping women with the fewest resources and the most in need.
But government-mandated paid leave and universal daycare is only a piece of a larger puzzle. A 24/7 work cycle and bosses who favor workers who put in long hours and get plenty of facetime does not accommodate working mothers. And stereotypes that mothers are less committed and less efficient are rampant despite the fact that there’s plenty of research that suggests otherwise.
Though it is illegal to discriminate against pregnant workers and mothers, it’s still a huge problem in the U.S. More than 3,000 complaints were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2017. This discrimination also results in women being put on a “mommy track” when they do return to work, which could help to explain not only the growing wage gap but why there are only 24 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Of course, avoiding marriage and skipping out on having babies isn’t a realistic solution to the wage gap. And in reality, most families don’t have a choice for one parent to stay home and watch the kids — 40% of families rely on the wife to take on a sole or primary breadwinning role.
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That’s why this Equal Pay Day, Refinery29 isn’t suggesting you lean in. We’re not putting the onus on you to ask for more and give you false hope that individual actions could miraculously solve a problem that research suggests could take more than 130 years to fix. Instead, we’re taking a deeper look at working mothers with a series of stories on how parenthood impacts a person’s career and their earning potential.
Ludmila Leiva explores the unexpected obstacles facing women who have to job-hunt while pregnant.
Liz Tracy discusses the emotional labor of trying to track down affordable childcare.
Anna Davies does a deep dive into the pros and cons of a flexible work schedule for working moms.
And we talked to six women who are reinventing corporate culture by building businesses that are supportive of mothers.
This is an issue that impacts women at every level, in every industry, regardless of their race and sexual orientation. It’s complicated and it’s shitty, but important people are finally talking about it. Maybe this is the progress we need so we don’t have to wait another 100 years to see the wage gap become another piece of history.
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