The Mommy Wage Gap

Mothers are half as likely to be offered jobs as non-mothers — and they get paid less for doing the same work. Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner are out to change that.

June 12, 2006  |  There’s a lot of talk about family values in this country. Yet in most states women with children can be denied jobs or given less pay, just because they are mothers. The wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is now greater than the wage gap between women and men. In their new book, The Motherhood Manifesto: What America’s Moms Want and What to Do About It (Nation Books), co-founder Joan Blades and consultant and author Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner ask: Isn’t it about time that we actually started supporting families and mothers?

Terrence McNally Joan, briefly how did you get to this book?

Joan Blades: I only became aware of the huge bias against mothers in the workplace a couple of years ago. I went, “Wait a minute, what’s that about? You mean to say mothers are half as likely to be offered a job as non-mothers — and they get paid less for doing the same work?” All of a sudden I could see why there are so many women and children in poverty, and why there are so few women in the halls of power, be it corporate or legislative.

TM Kristin, what led you to team up with Joan on this project?

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner I’m a mom of two kids, a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old, and I’ve been juggling work and family for years. I’ve spent time as a stay-at-home mom, time doing contract work and time as a journalist. These issues are near and dear to my heart.

The book “The Motherhood Manifesto” and the organization came about because Joan and I saw problems shared by so many women in this country not being addressed. We both want to bring these issues into the daylight, so we can talk about them and work on solutions.

TM What are some of the most revealing or important numbers in terms of the raw deal for mothers?

KRF: One study found that women without children make 90 cents to a man’s dollar, women with children make 73 cents to a man’s dollar, and single mothers, who often bear the burden of supporting their families the most, make 56 to 66 cents to a man’s dollar.

Dr. Shelley Correll of Cornell looked for the root of the wage gap between mothers and non-mothers. She compared women with equal resumes and equal job descriptions — with only one difference. One bio said the woman had children and the other bio did not have that information. Between equally qualified people, women with children were 44 percent less likely to be hired and were offered $11,000 lower starting salaries.

TM Everything else about the person and the resume was the same?

KRF: Identical, absolutely identical. And this is important because right now a quarter of our families with children under 6 live in poverty. Having a baby is a leading cause of poverty in this country. Most families need two working parents in order to stay financially solvent, and wages of mothers are a very important part of the family economy.

TM In some of the personal stories, you show families where both parents work to make ends meet. They parcel out vacations and sick leave very carefully, and it hardly leaves room for the miracle of birth.

JB: Of 168 countries in a global study, 163 have paid maternity leave. The U.S. is one of only five countries that does not. The only other industrialized country that doesn’t is Australia, but they have universal health care, a year off unpaid, and some kind of subsidy for kids.

In the book we write about Salina. Pooling all her potential days off, she and her husband figured out that she could take one month off. Now only a month off with a newborn is bad enough, but then she went into labor early and the baby had to be in the hospital for the first couple of weeks. She was not about to spend her month off with the baby in the hospital, so she went back to work days after giving birth.

She took her month off when the baby came home, which was wonderful. But then what does she do? Well she was lucky — her employer was highly sympathetic. She took her baby to work with her and learned how to breastfeed while working.

TM So she took a one-month-old to work?

JB: Yes. So here we have women learning how to breastfeed and type at the same time.

TM I’m sure there are stories where women have to be in bed the last two weeks of pregnancy. The two weeks off that they were planning to share with the child are now spent waiting for the child. And then they’re asking, “Are we going to be able to pay our rent? Are we going to be able to afford our car payment? Or am I going to have to go back to work two weeks after the baby is born?” Correct?

JB: Exactly, and that’s where the poverty spells come in, because bottom line: Infants take really close care, and it’s a hugely hard thing to leave your infant with anyone but the father or grandmother. Most mothers of new mothers are working too now.

KRF: I think you really hit on a point here with the paid family leave issue, because it radiates out into most of the other points in “The Motherhood Manifesto.”

For example, we have somebody like Salina, who isn’t in a high wage job, and has now taken all of her sick leave and all of her vacation leave. You can’t even do that in all states, but she lives in Washington state and you can do it there. Now, what happens when the baby gets sick or she gets sick? She doesn’t have any leave; she’s used that up already.

She also has an issue of the cost of child care, which in this country is between $4,000 and $10,000 a year — while the minimum wage is only $5.15 an hour. That’s around $12,000 a year if you work full-time 52 weeks a year without breaks.

So all of these points are tied together: the high cost of child care, the lack of paid family leave, the low wages and even the health care issues. Most industrialized countries have some form of universal health care. We do not. All of this burden is mainly placed on the mother.

It’s important to point out that in countries where there are family-friendly policies, we do not see the maternal wage gaps that we have here — women with children making 73 cents to a man’s dollar.

TM Why do the conditions exist in the U.S. that lower mothers’ wages?

KRF: When we talk about work and family balance in America — and we often use that phrase — we put it all on the mother as an individual to figure out how to balance these issues. As if buying a calendar, maybe with a cute kitten on it, would fix everything. If you could just write in neater handwriting where you’re supposed to be at what time … But in fact, it’s not just up to the mother.

We have a country of rugged individualists, but it’s not just up to the individual mothers. When this many people have the same problems at the same time, this is a societal issue — not a personal scheduling failure.

With MomsRising and with the book, we’re saying: Let’s bring these issues to light. Let’s join together on and say, look, we share these problems and we need to share our solutions. It’s time to do that.

TM What underlies the discrimination — employers just can’t be bothered? They don’t want to worry about having to be more flexible. They don’t want to worry about what happens when your child gets sick. They don’t have room or time for natural human care and compassion and being part of a community …?

JB: All that may be true, but the book also offers stories of businesses that have chosen to make their work flexible and parent-friendly in a broad variety of ways — and those businesses are thriving. It’s good for business when work is good for the workers.

TM By being rigid and exclusionary, they’re losing enormous talent, aren’t they?

JB: Exactly.

TM A woman who left a career to have a child and wants to come back into the work force — someone who has experience, who’s managed time well, who’s handled lots of responsibilities — will be rejected in favor of someone who may be just starting out …?

JB: On the other hand, when you give parents good jobs that are respectful of their responsibilities, you get huge loyalty, hard work and a very cohesive workplace. That has great value to the employer as well as the employee.

TM Worrying about the day or two she might take off because her child is sick ignores the fact that she’s likely to be there for years if treated well.

KRF: People assume that maybe it’s the mother’s fault; they’re not committed to their jobs. In fact, studies show that mothers who know their children are relying on them for food and a roof over their heads are often more committed to their jobs.

Retaining employees saves businesses a lot of money in recruitment and retraining costs. Often when there are flexible work options, we see a higher level of productivity because of that increased loyalty.

Flexible work options can be had in a number of different types of companies. One in the book, Johnson Moving and Storage — not typically the kind of place you expect to find flexible work options — worked it out with their moving van dispatchers in a way that was helpful for the company as well as for the employees. The owner told us very frankly that he was able to attract more highly qualified employees due to the flexible work options.

TM Why do you think things in the U.S. are so much worse in so many ways than most other countries? What drives the status quo?

JB: I think we’re having a problem with long-term thinking. Frankly, to have a vibrant future, we have to be taking good care of our kids. In 20 years they’re going to be the engine of our country. We have to invest in them, and the best way to invest in them is to make it possible for their parents to do a fine job raising them.

Unfortunately, we keep thinking too short-term. For example, it’s crazy that there are millions of kids without health benefits. It’s crazy that we’re not investing in quality early child care, because kids that get to school not ready to learn end up costing much more. They repeat grades and need extra tutoring.

Child care workers are pretty much the lowest paid workers in America. They have families to support too, and if they get an offer to do some other kind of work, they’re going to take it. So kids don’t get stability of caregivers, and young children need continuity.

You’ve got a lot of pieces that are all interacting here. We’re thinking quarterly, or the next election, and we need to be thinking the next decade.

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