Let’s play a game. When I say the term “Wage Gap,” what are the first few words that come to mind? “Woman,” “money” and even “unfair” would be obvious choices. But let me give you another word … “Motherhood.”
You know the statistics: The average wage of a woman working full-time, year-round is only 79 percent of a man’s earnings. That’s why Equal Pay Day falls in April – to show how far into the year a woman would have to work to earn what a man would have in the previous year.
But did you know the wage gap is even bigger for women of color? Or that even when economists control for all factors, including experience and education, a gender wage gap still exists?
As the debate about why women are paid less than men rages on, another fact that’s clear and essential to understand is that mothers, on average, have lower wages than non-mothers. There are, not surprisingly, a lot of explanations for this (such as mothers work slightly fewer hours in paid jobs, as opposed to the unpaid care work they do more of than men at home) – but not all of them hold water when it comes to envisioning the kind of society we want to and must live in.
This is a problem … a big one. In 2016, the paid work of women is more important than ever to the financial security of American families and our national economy, thus the wage gap is damaging for both. And yet our systems are set up so that 85 million moms are still fighting to earn equal opportunities, let alone equal pay.
Let’s look at three of the obstacles working moms face in the fight for equal pay: Widespread bias, out-dated laws and workplace policies and, of course, care.
Women are often regarded as having a different career path than men, with obstacles that often stop them in their tracks before they can break through the glass ceiling. The biggest hurdle: Motherhood.
Why? Mothers, historically, have been perceived as less dedicated employees after having children because many employers think mothers will be distracted by their home lives.
Years of cultural bias have been so damaging that in some ways it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Millennial women, who on paper appear better-equipped to close the gender gap than any prior generation in terms education, labor force participation and other variables, are even less optimistic about successfully balancing their work and family lives than past generations.
A recent survey of Harvard Business School alumni found that 37 percent of Millennials who aren’t yet moms expect to interrupt their careers for parenting – a higher percentage than Gen X alumni. Just last year, Pew Research reported 58 percent of millennial moms say being a working mom makes it harder to get ahead in their careers.
Their fears are not unfounded. Women are nearly twice as likely as men to report they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work.
- Outdated Laws and Workplace Policies
It’s not always conscious bias. Our workplaces were built based on a single-income household model, where the dad works and mom stays home with the kids.
The workplace was not designed to accommodate the needs and realities of a 21st Century workforce – one where the majority of workers have care responsibilities, both parents work, and where women are a main source of talent for today’s businesses. The workplace is still stuck in the “Leave It to Beaver" era and the vestiges of the past are unduly influencing the success of the current workforce.
Sure, there are workplace protections. It’s illegal, for instance, to refuse to hire a pregnant woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition. And there are protections making it unlawful to discriminate against female workers relying on stereotypes of traditional gender roles, such as the assumption a woman would be less capable of aggressive salesmanship. It’s even technically illegal to pay women and men differently for doing the same job. But these types of discrimination can be extremely difficult to prove.
That’s why we need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act at the federal level – a law that would make it illegal, for example, to fire someone for discussing their salary with their co-workers. And we need more innovative state laws, like the proposed Massachusetts Equal Pay Act that would further ensure that legitimate factors, such as education, experience and training are the only reasons for pay differentials. Care.com supports the passage of this bill in Massachusetts, where our company is headquartered, and looks forward to the state’s continued leadership on these issues.
Furthermore, we need workplace policies like guaranteed paid family leave and paid sick days at the federal, state and organizational levels. These policies are vital for us to change the prevailing workplace culture from one that penalizes employees with care responsibilities to one that recognizes the reality that it’s what most employees will encounter at some point during their working lives.
The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without access to guaranteed paid maternity leave for mothers, and only 12 percent of American workers have access to paid parental leave. In 2016, it’s unacceptable that a quarter of women have to return to work within two weeks of giving birth in order to feed their families. And it’s unacceptable that millions of moms without access to paid sick days are forced to choose between a paycheck and caring for their family.
That’s why we need to pass the FAMILY Act and the Healthy Families Act, which address these concerns. That’s why it’s important for us to celebrate when an employer like Twitter introduces a gender-neutral parental leave program for new parent employees. Gender-neutral programs and policies like these reinforce the modern family’s desire to share caregiving and breadwinning more equally.
But there’s one more essential ingredient needed to give women equal opportunity to do equal work: Care.
- Access to Reliable, Affordable Care
For parents around the world there is a co-dependency between work and care. You need reliable care to be able to work, and you need to work to be able to afford care.
Even if they work outside the home, women do more unpaid care work inside the home than men, so a lack of policies that support working parents disproportionately impacts women. When a child gets sick it is more likely that a mother would stay home to care for that child (especially if she already makes less in her job than her partner), risking bias from a workplace culture that doesn’t value or support that role.
Women also happen to face the biological reality of childbirth, which means that mothers end up taking more unpaid time-off outside the workforce than fathers, which further contributes to the gender wage gap. And while some of the pay gap may be due to working fewer hours or more time out of the workforce, at least some of it persists even when productivity is taken into account.
That’s why employer-sponsored care solutions, like those offered through Care@Work, as well a public care infrastructure that makes care affordable, high-quality and accessible, is so essential to getting at the root causes of the pay gap. The cultures of our society and organizations must truly value care – not to see it as an obstacle or impediment to workers – but for what it is: A reality for the American workforce that also has vital economic impacts. Once we do this, then we can really tackle the issue of equal pay and beyond.
It’d be easy to chalk a lot of this up to women’s “career choices.” In fact they are not “choices,” but decisions made within the constraints that motherhood place on them and a society that hasn’t adjusted for the fact that most mothers work outside the home.
The real choice is what to do about it, and how we choose to move forward in a way that will empower women and families and drive our economy.