The much-vaunted “gender wage gap” — which has been key to countless feminist arguments about workplace inequity — is actually just a motherhood penalty. At the beginning of their careers, men and women’s wages are close to equal. But when women become mothers, their wages take a dive from which they may never fully recover: Where childless women earn an average of 80 cents to a white man’s dollar, mothers on average earn only 71 cents. (Notably, women of color earn less than that and the gap between white women and women of color is rapidly increasing.)
And those mothers earning 71 cents on a man's dollar are the women who are keeping their heads above water and their career intact. Given the skyrocketing cost of private child care, some mothers either can’t afford to go back to work at all or else they work to keep their careers alive in the long-term, while spending much, if not all, of their earnings on child care.
So, if we’re ever going to level the playing field between men and women at work, we have to start with moms.
A problem this big can’t be solved by personal efforts or policies that address the symptoms of the deeper injustice.
It’s tempting to decide that this is a simple compensation problem — many activist efforts, like the recent Mothers’ Equal Pay Day, stress closing the income gap — or even just a personal issue. Many mothers, for instance, are encouraged to pursue individual solutions; studies tend to focus on the timing of pregnancies and their impact on future earnings; and even the Paycheck Fairness Act instructs the Department of Labor to “establish and carry out a grant program for negotiation skills training for girls and women."
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But a problem this big can’t be solved by personal efforts or policies that address the symptoms of the deeper injustice. Working mothers aren’t just experiencing unequal pay: They’re facing unequal demands on their energy and time in a culture that is still not set up to reflect women’s lived realities.
The impulse, when faced with discrimination on account of being a mother, is to say that having a baby won’t impact your work in the slightest, and that anyone who says otherwise is a sexist. But, in my experience, having a baby does impact your work, because it impacts your life — your sleep cycle, your hormonal balance, your financial planning, your living space, your eating habits, your friendships, your sex life and your lower back. Babies impact everything; it’s what they do.
And if we stopped having them, the human race would die out, so we have got to find some way to plan around them.
Fathers have been able to work in the endless, obsessive way demanded by American culture, because they usually have wives onto whom they offload their child- and home care.
Right now, the people who are expected to adapt are mostly women. We are the people who, for the most part, take leave to care for the newborn, who leave early to pick the kids up from day care, who field calls from the schools in the middle of the day, who ask to work from home because the kid is sick, who work part-time or on a contract basis to be more available at home, who have to be home in time for dinner and homework and bedtime, and who might even (God forbid) bring the child into work when childcare falls through.
And we’re the people who pay for it, because all of this is directly in conflict with being a “good” worker within a masculinist work culture. Employers still overwhelmingly measure productivity and commitment by looking at who is willing to forsake all commitments outside of work; the people who come in early and stay late, who don’t take personal calls or sick days, who are always available and who never admit to having anything they value more than their jobs. Mothers, by default, cannot embody that kind of ideal worker. Mothers always know that there’s more to their lives than work, or that we will call them heartless or selfish if they put in the same hours as fathers and childless women — making sure they get punished, either economically or socially, no matter what they do.
Fathers have been able to work in the endless, obsessive way demanded by American culture, because they usually have wives onto whom they offload their child- and home care. Well-off, white mothers are increasingly able to work this way, because they can offload that care onto working-class women and women of color. But for most mothers — especially working-class mothers holding down gig work or non-office jobs — this mode of professional engagement is simply not tenable. No matter how “understanding” a boss wants to be, and no matter how good those women are at advocating for themselves, unless the culture of work changes, they’ll fall behind.
The solution has to go further, down to the level of what we expect from each other and from work.
Political solutions do exist: For instance, this country currently guarantees neither paid parental leave nor universal childcare, putting us shockingly behind most of Europe. But even those programs fall short if they’re not accompanied by changes in social norms. In Denmark, for example, parents are afforded some of the best childcare and parental leave programs in the world, yet women still end up earning less than male peers, because they’re still the gender that winds up working part time or taking time off of work to deal with parenting.
The solution has to go further, down to the level of what we expect from each other and from work. We need workplace cultures that are built to reflect the needs of people other than straight men with stay-at-home wives; workplaces that provide child care, that honor flexible schedules and encourage working from home; employers that measure “productivity” by some standard other than continual availability or sleep-at-your-desk levels of monastic devotion to the job. We need women in power, if only so that power doesn’t reflexively and unthinkingly favor the lives and needs of men. And we need men to think and act like mothers — to take some of the personal calls, schedule their own work around family obligations, use their parental leave and paid time off when they’re lucky enough to have it (some Scandinavian countries have literally started forcing men to take their parental leave) so that women aren’t the only ones taking the hit.
We need to stop asking women to change for the sake of work, and start asking work to change for the sake of women. Mothers are working plenty hard, and doing good, necessary work, though their schedules or habits or lives may not fit the patterns we’ve been taught to appreciate. They’re not shirking or falling short; we are failing them. Work in a world where motherhood holds value would look very different than anything we’ve known to date. But if we genuinely want equitable workplaces, we have to start making the change.
Sady Doyle is the author of "Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear... and Why" (Melville House, 2016). She founded the feminist blog Tiger Beatdown, and her work has appeared regularly in Elle, The Guardian, and In These Times, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.