Women's Empowerment

Motherhood Is Work, and the Pennies Aren’t Adding Up

Graphic: W+G Creative
Cent by cent over the past few decades, the gender-based wage gap in the United States has narrowed: As of 2020, people who identify as women are earning 83 cents to a man’s dollar, compared to 71 cents in 1990. But, if you add “mom” to your résumé, that gap widens back up; you’ll be one of nearly a third of all employed women in the United States who stand to earn a quarter less than a man’s buck, and even less if you are a mother of color.

What’s more is that those numbers only consider full-time, year-round workers. Factor in the millions who have lost jobs, had hours slashed, or who left the labor force amid the pandemic, and you'll see that mothers today stand to earn an average 58 cents to the man’s dollar—43 cents for Black mothers and 39 cents for Latinx and Native American mothers, according to forthcoming research from the National Women's Law Center. What's clear from these numbers is that women are not a monolith, and the wage gap is not closing equally among childless women and working mothers of all backgrounds.

Given the realities of the wider gender pay gap, mothers in a heterosexual partnership are making an average of $10,435 less per year than their male partners. This gives way to a vicious and normalized cycle of women earning less to start, making caretaking and childrearing a financially logical task to fall to them, which only reinforces leave policies that are inequitable, if available at all.

There's a vicious and normalized cycle of women earning less to start, making caretaking and childrearing a financially logical task to fall to them, which only reinforces leave policies that are inequitable.

The U.S. is one of just eight countries without national paid family leave, and although the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act is available to both mothers and fathers, historically more women take it than men, and for longer periods of time, which has negative implications on their career mobility and future earnings. Repeat this cycle with a second or third child, and it’s no surprise why working mothers don’t recoup those losses, and the wage gap looms larger as women age.

“They never catch up,” says Sharmili Majmudar, executive vice president of policy and organizational impact for Women Employed, a nonprofit organization dedicated to pay equity. “It’s a lifelong gap. And what sometimes gets lost when talking about it in cents on the dollar is how it’s cumulative. When you look over the course of a typical professional career, over 40 years, those 20- or 30-cent discrepancies add up to $400,000 to more than a million dollars.” It also lessens the value of women's retirement accounts and average Social Security benefit upon retirement.

The pandemic has also uniquely impacted the career trajectory and, by proxy, pay of working mothers. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, at the onset of the pandemic, as many as 12.9 million, or 45 percent, of working moms with school-age children were not actively working, marking a 21-percent decline in work versus a 14 percent drop for fathers. To help explain the descrepancy, the Census Bureau posits that mothers were more likely to work in front-line service jobs heavily impacted by lockdowns, and, following daycare disruptions and school closures, they bore the brunt of the unpaid domestic household responsibilities, namely supervising children stuck at home, which might have led to voluntary withdrawals from the workforce.

But, as the current wave of corporate departures, now known as the Great Resignation, forces businesses to rethink how to retain employees and affords workers the potential for more bargaining power, a new kind of calculus could be considered: Might this be an inflection point for mothers to finally have a chance at closing that wage gap?

“Now, more than ever before, we’re a boulder at the top of the hill, and we could either roll backwards or roll forwards,” says Majmudar. “What happens next depends on the choices we collectively make.”

How working mothers, themselves, can demand change

Melissa Skoog, a working mom of two, recently launched theJuggl, a marketplace of professional growth experts catered to women and mothers navigating workplaces that she believes aren't designed for them with the intention of providing tools to change that landscape. The startup offers one-on-one programming as well as workshops for paid members, most of whom are in the “sandwich generation” of caring for kids and their own aging parents simultaneously. She has tapped leadership and executive coaches as well as those who do “soul work” consulting for corporations with the goal of treating employees as whole people instead of siloed workers.

“Employees have to demand work-life integration so that the system changes,” Skoog says, adding that the system can change. Professional networking communities like HeyMama and The Mom Project encourage woman-identifying people to feel empowered to include parenting skills on their résumés and job applications and in interviews. And just last month, LinkedIn implemented a feature that allowed users to add a “career break” to their profile to explain gaps due to parenting, bereavement, or health needs.

“Especially in the tech center, companies are wising up to understanding this need and bringing in more progressive support systems,” says Skoog. “It’s not a new concept.” Still, it’s not mainstream, either. Roughly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have employee resource groups, or ERGs, which are voluntary affinity groups often aimed at fostering more inclusive workplaces for specific populations. But only an estimated 8 percent of workers actually participate in them. That’s likely because they typically require participation on top of work commitments, operate on shoestring budgets, and offer no stipend to leaders. Formal mentorship programs, which Skoog references as another useful pathway for employees to advance in their careers, also tend to be unpaid add-ons to full-time work that are more often absorbed by women than other workers.

In order for such employee-led groups and new tools, like the LinkedIn update, to meaningfully yield their intended positive effects, though, all people need to be onboard. “Men tend to be incredibly sympathetic to what we go through, but they don’t step up in meaningful ways,” Skoog says. “If they are able to see these tools as useful to them, too, then all colleagues could collaborate in a much clearer way.“

That said, while such platforms and tools can help in closing the wage gap for mothers, they largely don’t apply to those who aren’t in high-paid white-collar jobs. For their part, low-wage workers—the majority of whom are women—at chains like Starbucks, Amazon, and McDonald’s are organizing unions at an unprecedented pace. The common refrain of unions—demands for adequate paid sick leave and schedule stability—are in line with issues heavily impacting mothers' ability to retain work and generate wages.

“There has to be not just action on an individual basis but on a collective basis.” —Emily Martin, VP for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center

“The force of change that we really need in order to erase the race and gender wage gap aren’t changes that worker by worker can negotiate on their own,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “In order for this moment to translate into long-term changes, there has to be not just action on an individual basis but on a collective basis.”

How public policy and organizational-level changes are necessary to close the wage gap for mothers

There’s currently no paid national parental leave in the U.S., but the Biden administration’s stalled Build Back Better plan—the spending bill that would offer four weeks of paid leave—is a mark of progress. Even if approved, though, it still wouldn’t provide enough time to equalize the burden between working mothers and fathers. Considering that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' guidelines call for a postpartum checkup after 12 weeks—and studies suggest recovery is likely to take longer—the onus is still on a birthing mother to commit to longer leaves, which lead to widening pay gaps.

To be sure, better leave policies and childcare benefits would help close the wage gap for mothers. “The employment rate for mothers is lower if you have young children, and a big piece of that is a lack of affordable, safe, high-quality childcare,” Majmudar says. “Even pre-pandemic, the childcare sector was not meeting the needs that existed for childcare, and now it’s in full-blown crisis.” To help, Majmudar cites the return of the pandemic-era Child Tax Credit, company-issued childcare allowances, and even the consideration of on-site childcare centers.

These factors that often force mothers out of their jobs are more pronounced for those who hold low-wage positions. Take, for example, the issue of schedule variability with a number of service jobs. In these roles, schedules often “change week-to-week or even day-to-day, with very little notice, which makes it hard to know how to cover childcare obligations while doing your job,” Martin says. “That schedule variability leads to income variability” when parents—often mothers—can’t accept work in light of prioritizing childcare. Universal preschool is a component of the Build Back Better plan, which could help.

Because a more robust paid leave won’t happen on the federal level anytime soon, though, extensive gender-neutral leave options that foster inclusivity of use, promote egalitarian parenting dynamics, and help to close the wage gap for mothers are imperative for state lawmakers, as well as the private sector to move toward.

"Gender-inclusive benefits create cultures that encourage all parents to take leave after the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child." — Sharmili Majmudar, EVP, policy and organizational impact for Women Employed

“By providing it to fathers as well, you help to shift caregiving burdens within a household,” Majmudar says. “Men should have the opportunity to devote time to be fathers, especially knowing that the model for a family is not only heterosexual parents. Gender-inclusive benefits create cultures that encourage dads, and both parents in gay and lesbian families, to take leave after the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child. We would then have the opportunity to make this not a women’s issue or a working mother’s issue but an issue for our communities and our families."

Perhaps the most far-reaching innovation in supporting and retaining moms at the corporate level right now, which only came about in light of the pandemic, is flexibility. As social scientist Ellen Ernst Kossek, PhD, a professor of management at Purdue University who studies the intersection of work and family notes, many corporations have had no choice but to allow for levels of remote work previously not offered to those in full-time, salaried positions.

But, its benefit is limited. “We’ve slapped on more flexibility, but telework is a double-edged sword, and we need to be careful with how we’re implementing it, or it can end up really hurting mothers,” Dr. Kossek says. “Now women, back in the home, may be trying to multitask even more, caring for kids while trying to do their full-time jobs… Kids are back in school, sure, but they have lost two years of normalcy, mental-health problems are rising, and schools still get out at 3 in the afternoon. Who is going to end up sacrificing their career to carry that burden?”

If, as Dr. Kossek hopes, more men demand the same support structures typically used by women, more companies will provide them universally, and more men will take advantage of them. This would have the trickle-down effect of women no longer needing to take as many accommodations, which would lead to fewer breaks in their earnings, more opportunities for increased pay, and a better chance at achieving pay parity.

The good news is that employees—regardless of gender identity—seem to be aligned in what they prioritize most. Second only to an increase in income, job-seekers in a recent Gallup poll want “greater work-life balance” and “better personal well-being.” In fact, “toxic culture” is noted to be the driving force in all resignations today: it’s 10 times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation.

“People are looking for jobs that offer them the ability to balance their lives, to grow their income, to feel like they’re contributing in a way that’s aligned with their skills and expertise, and they want to know that there’s going to be opportunity to move up, and they want to know that they’re not going to be expected to constantly be put into the impossible situation of choosing between their job and their family,” Majmudar says. “All of these things, they’re also beacons for employers to use to create jobs that meet those needs.”

Whether or not corporations, thought leaders, and policymakers will do the work to meet those needs is the greatest force at play with the boulder at the top of the hill—and it's too early to tell which way it will fall. “The momentum is in our favor,” Majmudar says, “But only if we continue to make it clear that when women and mothers can succeed, all of society stands to benefit.”

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