Is the Gender Pay Gap Really A Motherhood Pay Gap?

Last year, women in the United States earned 80 cents on average for every dollar a man earned. And sadly, Louisiana’s gender wage gap remains one of the worst in the country. Lawmakers recently reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, intending to strengthen equal pay protection and bringing the pay gap once again into the news. 

But studies in the US and other countries show that what we’ve traditionally referred to as a gender pay gap is actually more of a motherhood or “childbearing pay gap.” Why? The gap in earnings between women who have children and men who do not is much wider than when we compare childless women and men to one another.

It seems that the easy answer to “why is there a gender pay gap?” is discrimination against women. Surely it still exists, but Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, in her years of research, has found that discrimination alone doesn’t account for the breadth of the gap. She’s found the gender wage gap in America is the largest for women in their 30s — in other words, their prime, childbearing years. In a Freakonomics podcast interview, Goldin argues that women tend to seek out “temporal flexibility” — the ability to work more flexible hours, to work remotely, or to tackle projects outside of typical business hours — because they are more likely to participate in caregiving for family members (whether children, parents or other family members) than men are.

So basically, our innate tendency to be nurturers and caregivers is holding us back in our careers, because many employers haven’t yet caught up to offering an appropriately supportive environment for women, specifically mothers who work.

Women are far more likely than men to experience career interruptions due to caring for a child or family member. Women often choose lesser paying positions or to work in lower-paying industries in order to get the flexibility they need to support their families. While you may be inclined to start touting women’s empowerment and the fact that men, specifically fathers, need to step up, the truth is, as women we have intrinsic biological preferences to serve as caregivers and the economic and business landscape punishes us for it. Women are more likely to choose to spend more time on child care activities if given the option.

So, what’s to be done about this?

Yes, dads need to step up to the plate, no doubt. They need to participate as an equal partner in caregiving and help to break the traditional mold that this is a “responsibility” of the mother. As mothers we need to stop perpetuating ideas that when dad watches the kids he is “giving you a break” or “babysitting” rather than “being their father.” We also need to support one another and learn how to cope with mom guilt and the inherent challenges many working mothers experience. We need to recognize that we carry a load completely different from that of our children’s fathers. And, we need to fight for flexible and supportive work environments for ourselves and our fellow working mothers.

There is a lot of debate about paid parental leave in the US and whether employers should be required by law to provide it. In my opinion, employers as much as government have a responsibility to support their female employees who bear children.

Why should employers and the general public care?

Today, more and more women are the sole earners for their families (40% of households with children under 18 compared to 11% in 1960). And supporting healthy families has a direct impact on our economy. When families are healthier, there are less public funds spent on social issues like child abuse and neglect and more reinvested into our communities making them better places to work and live.

Employers can make an impact by reviewing their policies, benefits, and company culture from the lens of a working parent. Some of these desired benefits are actually the same benefits that non-parent Millennials in the workforce also crave. So making updates might just be worth a business’s while if, like most companies, they’re are finding that Millennials make up a majority of the employee population. Making full-time employment more attractive and attainable for women with families will undoubtedly help to close the gender pay gap.

How can employers make an impact on the gender / motherhood pay gap?

  • Offer flexible schedules
  • Offer remote work opportunities
  • Generous vacation / sick leave policies enable parents to care for inevitably sick children
  • Make your workplace breastfeeding friendly (AKA comply with the law!) and create a comfortable and private pumping room for moms returning to work
  • Offer short term disability insurance, flexible savings accounts, and other benefits that parents or those looking to start families value
  • Define and reinforce a company culture and/or set of values that communicates to all employees you want them to work to live, not live to work

As a full-time working mom nearing the birth of my second child, I can personally attest to the value these types of benefits create for working parents. Without the support of my employer, I could absolutely see myself making choices that would disrupt my career. I support every woman’s choice to do what is right for their own health (both mental and physical) and for their families. And as a leader in business, I take it as a personal responsibility to help close the gender pay gap by supporting working mothers.


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