The best gift for Mother's Day would be equal pay

  • On Mother's Day, Americans will spend $23 billion on gifts, meals and more meant to honor moms.
  • Yet women in the workplace still make less than men, and mothers are the greatest victims of unequal pay.
  • Here are ideas for how to level the pay scale.
Women rally to demand equal pay for women and an end to the wage gap .
Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Women rally to demand equal pay for women and an end to the wage gap .

Most Americans will celebrate Mother's Day by giving gifts and paying tribute to all the mothers in their lives. Our society values and honors the sacrifices that mothers make for their families.

The National Retail Federation estimates that we will spend $23.1 billion to celebrate Mother's Day this year. But in contrast to the honor that families bestow on mothers, there is one place that penalizes motherhood: the workplace.

The gender wage ratio is calculated as women's median pay divided by men's median pay. For the most recent data for the first quarter of 2018, the ratio of median weekly earnings of full-time female to male workers was 81.1 percent, or women earn, on average, 81 cents for every $1 men earn.

There are a multitude of reasons for this pay gap, including choices that women and men make in their hours of work, the occupation and industry in which they work, as well as discrimination against women.

Economists do statistical analyses on the pay gap to determine how much each reason contributes to it. But recent research shows that the gender pay gap is largely driven by mothers earning less than everyone else.

"It is estimated that women's earnings drop 20 percent compared to men after the birth of their first child and stays lower over the long run."

It is estimated that women's earnings drop 20 percent compared to men after the birth of their first child and stays lower over the long run. There is a very similar drop in pay when comparing women who have had at least one child with women who are childless. Having children does not impact men's pay – men with or without children have roughly the same earnings.

We would like to think that mothers are not discriminated against but evidence from experimental studies shows otherwise. No two actual applicants or workers are truly equivalent to each other so it is difficult to pinpoint why their labor market outcomes could be different. But in numerous experiments in which, literally on paper, the qualifications of the applicants or workers are the same except for their gender and parental status, discrimination permeates reliably.

One audit study found that resumes where the applicant can be identified as a mother were significantly less likely to get a callback for an actual job interview for entry and mid-level marketing and business job openings compared to childless women.

There was no penalty to an applicant who could be identified as a father versus the male applicant who was childless. The same researchers conducted a laboratory experiment of resume comparisons by gender and parental status for the same type of job opening.

It revealed that raters judged otherwise equivalent mothers to be less competent and less committed to work, were held to stricter performance standards, a higher standard on punctuality, were less likely to be hired, and were offered lower starting salaries than men and childless women.

Another audit study sent fake resumes of law students to law firms to apply for actual internships. The resumes differed in indicators of gender and socioeconomic background. The resume with significantly more callbacks was from the higher-class male applicant, who did much better than the equal higher-class female applicant whose resume's only difference was a female name.

Fictional job candidates

Additional feedback from attorneys about these applicants revealed that they assumed these equally qualified women, who did not yet even have a fake family, would be less committed to their careers for family reasons and so did not see as much point in making an investment in nurturing their law careers with employment offers.

Finally, another study asked actual Human Resources managers to review the resumes of fictional job candidates and indicate the starting wage that would be adequate for the candidates. All else equal about the resumes, the recruiters assigned lower wages to mothers than to nonmothers.

Discrimination is not the only reason that mothers are paid less than all others. Mothers on average tend to work fewer hours and sacrifice pay for the advantage of having jobs with more flexible work schedules.

But do our workplaces have to be organized in such a way that it is mothers, and not fathers, who are penalized or need to make employment sacrifices for being a parent? Employers benefit from having employees with a wide variety of perspectives and talents to bring to challenging company issues. What can be done to better include working mothers?

One idea is to tie pay more to tasks that are completed rather than the hours worked, i.e. "face time" at work. Mothers could then be paid equally to get the same tasks done but in less time. But more importantly, paid leave policies need to be gender neutral, rather than really being meant only for mothers to use. If fathers and childless workers take advantage of these policies as often as do mothers, then employers would have no reason to view mothers with extra caution.

In addition to the $23.1 billion that families are spending to honor mothers, the best gift of all would be ensuring that mothers can earn equal pay and have equal labor market opportunities.

Commentary by E. Anne York, professor of economics at the School of Business at Meredith College, a women's institution in Raleigh, N.C.

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