At Work, Dads Get a Bonus, but Moms Get a Penalty. What Gives?

May 06, 2016

It typically takes working mothers 5 extra months to be paid what working fathers are paid in just one year.

Each May, families around the country celebrate Mother’s Day, honoring the special women in their lives. Yet after all the praise we heap on moms, did you know that many can expect barriers in the workforce? Mothers typically are paid only 71 cents for every dollar fathers are paid. It’s called the “motherhood penalty,” and it’s a persistent problem for all women, not just mothers, working in America.

The typical woman working full time, year-round in the United States is paid just 80 percent of what men are paid, or a gap of 20 percent. Women around the country “celebrated” Equal Pay Day in April, but mothers (and most women of color) have to wait even longer for their paychecks to catch up. Mothers’ equal pay day, which takes place in May, represents the symbolic day when the median pay of mothers who work full time, year-round, catches up to the pay that working fathers received the previous year.

Why Do Moms Make Less?

Part of the problem is the lack of women in leadership roles. Stereotypes about mothers can negatively affect women’s career paths.

Employers may assume that women’s caregiving commitments make them inappropriate candidates for demanding jobs. According to AAUW’s 2016 report Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, motherhood comes with “powerful negative competence and commitment assumptions,” while fatherhood has the opposite effect.

Barriers and Bias reports that after becoming fathers, men see a 6 percent increase in earnings — even after controlling for factors such as hours worked and marital status — while new mothers see a 4 percent decrease per child. Research has shown that employers are less likely to hire mothers compared with child-free women, and when employers do make an offer to a mother, they offer her a lower salary than they do other women. Fathers, in contrast, do not suffer a penalty compared with child-free men.

What Can We Do?

There are actions we can take to protect mothers and all women in the workforce. AAUW has its own recommendations for employers, policy makers, and women themselves on how we can work to break down the obstacles mothers face in the workplace.

Employers can take it upon themselves to make a hospitable environment for working parents by offering flexible schedules. When managers focus on and recognize employees’ contributions rather than watching the clock, productivity and morale may improve.

Lawmakers can play an enormous role in addressing workplace obstacles through legislation at the local, state, and federal levels of government. One huge step in helping to close the pay gap would be to strengthen pay equity laws. Passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act would create incentives for employers to follow the law, empower women to negotiate for equal pay, and enforce the laws we already have. State and local policy makers can follow the lead of states like California and strengthen their state’s equal pay provisions. Since the United States is one of the few countries without mandated paid family or paid sick leavestates and cities can pass paid leave measures, and the U.S. Congress can and should support the federal FAMILY Act. Our elected officials can also work to help pregnant workers by updating laws that protect them. We need to promote the health of women and families with strong workplace policies and ensure that women are not forced out of their jobs or denied leadership opportunities.

Women themselves can take action in their everyday lives by learning to negotiate for higher salaries, promotions, and benefits at AAUW Start Smart and AAUW Work Smart salary negotiation workshops. We know you can’t negotiate your way around discrimination, but gaining the confidence and skills to effectively negotiate is extremely beneficial for women throughout their careers.

Having equity in pay and access to top positions is crucial for businesses, families, and the economy as a whole. After all, research has found that over 40 percent of households with children include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family. While we are optimistic about the heightened (and sometimes humorously informative) attention women’s and family issues have been getting, we have a long way to go in making things fair for mothers in the workplace.

But you can help influence change! Urge employers to focus on family-friendly policies. Tell your elected representatives to take action on paid leave and equal pay. And think about bringing AAUW’s salary negotiation workshops to your community. After all, mothers shouldn’t pay a penalty just because they’re mothers.

Mark your calendar for 2017 equal pay day dates.


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