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Why the Contemporary Gender Wage Gap Is A Penalty for Motherhood

March 28, 2024
Ahma & Co Team
Image Credit: William Fortunato
Image Credit: William Fortunato

It is universally acknowledged that women consistently earn less than men for performing the same job, even though gender-based pay discrimination has been illegal since 1963. That's right; it's been close to 60 years, and not a single country in the world has managed to get its act together enough to eliminate the wage gap. Iceland is doing the best, with women earning 89 cents for every dollar that a man does -but any deficit is too big! And don't even bother looking at the abysmal rate in the United States (it's only 76 cents to the dollar). The wage gap is nothing we haven't heard about or seen before. But, what we may not have heard about before is the "motherhood penalty," a massive contributor to the contemporary residual gender wage gap. And, if the name didn't signal it enough, it's not good news for you, moms.

So, what the heck is the motherhood penalty? The motherhood or child penalty refers to the adverse consequences that mothers experience professionally compared to childless women and men. A study conducted within Princeton University explains that the motherhood penalty stands as the monster brick wall that countries hit and cannot seem to pass in consideration of the gender wage gap.

To explain, industrialized countries have seen decreases in their gender wage gaps over time, reflecting the accomplishments of many gender equality initiatives over time. But, then, consistently across countries, the decline plateaus when confronted with the fact that -shocker- some women have children. So, there you have it: a big reason for the gender wage gap is that not a single country in the world has figured out how to factor in that women sometimes become mothers. Additionally, the study notes that motherhood as a cause of gender inequality has doubled from 40% in 1980 to 80% in 2013. If that isn't upsetting enough, just wait to see what this implies for mothers.

Harvard's Kennedy School of Women and Public Policy demonstrated just how this increased motherhood inequality manifests itself in the workplace. For example, it states that mothers are six times less likely to be hired and 8.2 times less likely to be promoted than childless women. Mothers are also recommended a salary nearly 8% lower than childless women and are perceived as 12.1% less committed to their work. Speaking of perceptions, women who visibly show their pregnancy in their place of work have to deal with things a lot grosser than just their morning sickness. They also have to deal with their co-worker's negative, often stereotypical, perceptions. In the workplace, pregnant mothers are often perceived as being less committed, less dependable, less authoritative, more emotional, and more irrational.  

The paradoxical cherry on top? Fathers are perceived as more committed and often experience pay raises compared to childless men. This pay raise is so typical it even has a name- the “father bonus.” Of course, you just had to grow and carry your newborn for nine months, deliver them, and then care for them all over again- but hey, let's pay dads more and punish you! Sound good? No? Hmm- well, lucky for us, there are solutions that (should) help.

What is the miracle solution? Plain and simple, support mothers more. A big part of the challenge in addressing the motherhood penalty is that working conditions in the United States and motherhood are like oil and water. Mothers either lack the provisions to provide childcare themselves or lack access to affordable, high-quality external care. For mothers who do look towards external childcare, like daycares, they can expect financially burdensome rates. For an average household, child care costs about 11% of the nation's median income. For single mothers, on average, childcare expenditures are 37% of their annual income. So, there is a clear unmet need for support for mothers trying to balance work and motherhood.

The Center for American Progress suggests supporting legislation that creates equitable access to childcare, whether in providing more measures for mothers and families to do so themselves or providing more accessible options for external care. Specific policies that promote this include:

  • Fair scheduling practices
  • Expanding access to affordable, high-quality child care
  • Ensuring paid leave
  • Implementing a nationally paid family and medical leave insurance program

These specific policies put mechanisms in place to support mothers in balancing motherhood and work. They aim to protect mothers from having to come to the dilemma of prioritizing either work or children over the other. Policies like these are essential to deterring further penalties for mothers and ultimately narrowing the gender wage gap.

It's been a long path towards narrowing the gap, and frankly, there's still a long path to go. However, things are looking up. For instance, this past March, President Joe Biden, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, declared March 24 as National Equal Pay Day, signaling awareness of the time it takes for women to "catch up" to the earning of men the previous year. It also signals the Biden-Harris Administration's intent to address it. Across the United States, the gender wage gap has become increasingly important on many politicians' agendas, paired with the recognition that the impact of the gender wage gap is not limited to just women. It is an issue for everyone.

So, here's to hoping that this increased attention on politician's radar signals progress for this long-standing issue. It's about time we figure out how to narrow the gap- and a big part of that starts in providing mothers the ample resources and environments they need to balance work and motherhood.

Ahma & Co Team

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