The Motherhood Penalty

May 2, 2014 | Economic Opportunity Institute

EOI Board Member, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner

By Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, EOI Board Member and founder and CEO of MomsRising

Wonders never cease: I agree with Phyllis Schlafly. Reading the arch-conservative lawyer’s controversial, much discussed April column in the Christian Post made me nearly drop my coffee when this jumped out from the page: “Women with children earn less…”

Finally someone said it.

The elephant in the room—that American moms experience intense wage discrimination—was front and center in Schlafly’s article. (“Elephant” because 81 percent of women in the United States have children by the time they are 44 years old, so this is a problem that affects most of us.)

Never would I have imagined it would be an anti-feminist icon like Schlafly speaking truth to power, any kind of truth, even accidentally, about unequal pay.

Unfortunately and predictably, Schlafly is quick to blame moms for their own wage discrimination, saying their “choices contribute to the pay gap.” Still: At least she admits the pay gap is real. Let’s take a moment to recognize that bit of progress.

Now here’s a stunner: Maternal status, i.e. being a mom, is a greater predictor of wage and hiring discrimination than gender. However, Schlafly’s erroneous claim that the wage discrimination that women—and particularly moms—face is somehow their fault is just plain wrong.

And Schlafly is only one of many recent examples of this blame game. Another is just how widely Claire Shipman and Katty Kay’s April article in The Atlantic, “The Confidence Gap,” has been used—whether Shipman and Kay intended it or not—to argue that women’s lack of confidence is responsible for gender barriers in the workforce. One recent Forbes article put the blame squarely on women’s shoulders for not reaching top management positions, saying, “Women, we aren’t taking action often enough and that’s crucial. We don’t have to be perfect. Men are confident about their ability at 60%.”

This, of course, blames the victim again, but let’s start with the facts that bust these myths: Studies using equal resumes and job experiences found that moms were hired 80 percent less of the time than women without children and were offered starting salaries that were $11,000 lower than those given to non-moms. Dads with equal resumes were offered $6,000 more than non-dads.

Wage differences within the same occupation make up most of the pay gap between men and women, another recent study found. Claudia Goldin, a labor economist at Harvard University, calculated that after controlling for age, race, hours and education, women who are doctors and surgeons, for example, earn 71 percent of men’s wages; women who are financial specialists make 66 percent of what male financial specialists earn.

What we’re seeing is flat-out discrimination, not a result of women’s lack of confidence or bad choices—and it’s certainly not a reflection of men being “more motivated by money” than women, as New Hampshire State Rep. Will Infantine (R) said last week in a House speech as he argued against the New Hampshire Paycheck Equality Act.

Wage discrimination is real, and it particularly affects moms and women of color.

More facts: Women without children make 90 cents to a man’s dollar, moms make 73 cents, single moms make about 60 cents and women of color make as low as 54 cents. On average, women working full-time, year-round, earn 77 cents to every dollar that men earn.

Yet Schlafly wrote, in a line that rightfully caused outrage: “The pay gap between men and women is not all bad because it helps to promote and sustain marriages.”

What!?

That’s one of the worst excuses for unfair pay yet.

Other ridiculous rationalizations are popping up. Just this month the Republican National Committee (RNC) tried to wave off pay discrimination by saying: “The disparity exists because a female social worker makes less than a male engineer.” This misses the point entirely. A female engineer who is just as qualified as her male counterpart should make the same pay, apples to apples. The RNC was comparing apples to oranges. (Maybe, though, we should take another moment to recognize the bit of progress that the RNC is finally admitting that the wage gap is real.)

Here’s a reality check for all of those making excuses and shifting blame. Women now comprise 50 percent of the labor force for the first time in history and most families now need the wages of moms to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to put a roof over their heads. In a time of growing income inequality, when raising a child from birth to age 18 costs more than $200,000 and when a quarter of young families are living in poverty, it’s absurd to say that the wage gap is helpful in any way, shape or form.

And yes, women do care about money.

But fixing the wage gap is not only about women—raising women’s incomes to parity would also boost our economy and save taxpayer funds by lowering reliance on government programs and by putting money directly into our consumer-fueled economy. This would not be a small boost: The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that U.S. GDP would grow by 3 percent if women were paid as much as men.

What Schlafly and others have been saying might sound outlandish, out-of-touch and possibly even like it’s coming from another planet, the deep undertones of that philosophy still shape our contemporary policies. And if you think it’s horrible, laughable even, to hear an anti-feminist icon make politically incorrect statements like, “The pay gap between men and women is not all bad,” then let me assure you, the horror of living with the ramifications of public policy that cements that philosophy into action is much, much worse.

How much worse? One in five kids in the United States is experiencing food scarcity due to family economic limitations. The wages of moms are important. In fact, most families rely on the wages that moms bring home. And when women don’t make fair wages, our families and our economy suffer.

So while Schlafly’s words may be somewhat entertaining to read from time to time, it’s far from entertaining to live with outdated, out-of-touch policies that don’t even begin to reflect our contemporary workforce—and that are completely out of step with the rest of the world:

  • 177 countries require some form of paid leave for mothers after new babies arrive, but the United States isn’t one of them. Only 12 percent of people in the United States have time off designated as “paid family leave” from their employers—and having a baby is a leading cause of “poverty spells,” when income dips below what’s needed for food and rent.
  • More than 160 countries have a minimum number of earned sick days for all, but again, the U.S. isn’t one of them. In fact, 80 percent of low wage workers in the U.S. don’t get a single paid sick day.
  • Child-care costs more than college in America, yet child-care workers are some of the lowest paid people in the country.
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, enacted in 1978, has loopholes so big that employers can deny some pregnant workers’ requests for simple accommodations like a stool that would allow a pregnant cashier to sit instead of stand. In other words, you can still, in 2014, be fired for asking to sit down if you’re pregnant.
  • Our current pay laws don’t let employees talk about how much they make so apples-to-apples comparisons can be made between job categories, leaving the door open for employers to retaliate against workers who discuss salaries with colleagues.

Solutions are possible. Not only can we start to address flat-out wage discrimination by moving forward pay transparency laws like the Paycheck Fairness Act, it also turns out that passing family economic security policies like access to paid family leave, earned sick days and affordable child care help close the wage gaps between moms and women without children, and thus also between women and men, while also boosting the economy. It’s a win-win.

It’s time to banish the echoes of Phyllis Schlafly and her ilk from our public policies. Enshrining retrograde ideas from the 1950s into law, as we have done over the past few decades, damages both our families and our economy.

In 2014, talking real family values means talking change, not making excuses.

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Posted in Women in the Workforce, Work & Family

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