Closing The Gap

The 'motherhood penalty' is real, and it costs women $16,000 a year in lost wages

Image Source | Getty Images

The so-called "motherhood penalty" is alive and well in America.

Despite making gains in education and experience, mothers are still facing an uphill battle in the workplace — and a pay gap that has barely budged in 30 years. In fact, it's costing them $16,000 a year in lost wages, according to an analysis of Census data by the nonprofit advocacy organization National Women's Law Center in 2018. Mothers in the U.S. get paid 71 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make.

They're also dealing with employers who view them as less devoted to their jobs.

"Employers still have stereotypes about the value of mothers as workers. Their social science research that shows if a woman is a parent, employers are likely to see her as less capable and less committed to work," Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center, tells CNBC.

It also extends to coworkers. A recent study by Bright Horizons, which operates over 1,000 early education centers and preschools in the U.S., found that 41 percent of employed Americans perceive working moms to be less devoted to their work. More than one-third judge them for needing a flexible schedule, the study found. And when it comes to announcing pregnancies, the number of women worried about telling their bosses has nearly doubled in five years — from 12 percent in 2014 to 21 percent in the 2019 study.

"Women, and primarily working mothers, are being treated differently," said Maribeth Bearfield, Bright Horizons' chief human resources officer. "They feel they are not being given the same type of career opportunities as others but they skills they bring to the table — multi-tasking, discipline — are skills we really need."

'Shock and horror'

It's a feeling that Leah Fink knows well. She says her problems started as soon as she told her now-former employer she was pregnant. She claims she was marginalized at her job as an assistant principal in a New York City public school and was discouraged from returning from maternity leave.

Feeling pushed out, Fink ultimately left her job and filed a pregnancy discrimination claim with the State Division of Human Rights. That claim was recently rejected when the agency determined there was no probable cause. Fink has yet to decide if she will appeal.

She alleged that a majority of her duties were re-assigned and that she lost her private office. She also said she struggled to find a sanitary place to pump and was told that many teachers had "ill-will" towards her so it wouldn't be an "easy" return to work.

"I was in such shock and horror that that would be said to me that I just walked out and burst into tears," Fink said. "I obviously did not want to go back to this place. I had to. I was trying to have the best attitude I could and that was just crushing."

When asked about Fink's claim, the New York City Department of Education said it is committed to making new mothers feel supported in the workplace and have appropriate lactation spaces. "It's absolutely critical they feel comfortable and supported in our schools. We have clear policies in place that prohibit discrimination, and while this complaint was dismissed by the State Division of Human Rights, we'll continue to focus on fostering a supportive environment for new moms," spokesperson Doug Cohen said.

The State Division of Human Rights had no comment on its decision. Instead, it referred to its final report that dismissed the claim, which stated, "evidence adduced from the record does not support Complainant's assertion that Respondent engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices against Complainant because of sex and a pregnancy-related condition."

These days, Fink wants to help other mothers. She started a business called Classes At, which provides classes and events for mothers. "It was completely born out of this horrible experience I had."

Decades of stagnation

The issue certainly isn't a new one — but surprisingly, things haven't changed much in the 30 years.

When Joya Misra began to study the issue for the non-profit research organization Washington Center for Equitable Growth, she was hoping to show that the motherhood penalty had shrunk over time. Instead, Misra, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her colleagues found the wage discrepancy is the almost same as it was three decades ago.

"We went into the study hoping for better news. It's not shocking. Employers haven't changed dramatically over this time," she told CNBC.

What has changed in the last 30 years is women. They account for almost half of the workforce and more are college educated.

We are really, really far behind on this. It's a very fixable problem.
Joya Misra
professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

However, education level has no bearing on the pay gap — it only begins to narrow after mothers get a doctoral degree, said Martin, from the National Women's Law Center. "It's not a problem that you can sort of educate yourself out of," she said. "The obstacles that mothers face at work that depress their wages are really felt across the economy, across income levels, across education levels. It's a systemic problem rather than an isolated one."

Those obstacles include the lack of family leave or issues with child care, she said. That can lead them to working in different occupations or taking time off — and those gaps in work history can add up to a lower wage.

What can be done?

Fixing the problem isn't simple. Part of it is the "long, slow work of cultural change," Martin said. Plus, things like affordable childcare, which makes it easier for women to remain in the workforce, paid sick days and paid family leave, which strengthens the connection of caregivers to the workplace, are needed, she added.

In fact, the gender gap and motherhood penalty go away in countries that provide paid parental leave and early child care, Misra pointed out.

"We are really, really far behind on this. It's a very fixable problem," Misra said. "The money that's usually put into things like parental leave or child care, we see it realized in the economy immediately. It's not money that's lost. It's money that creates a greater value."

Linda Chau and her son
Source: Linda Chau

For Linda Chau, the mother of a 5-year-old boy, a flexible schedule and corporate benefits — like backup childcare — have been a huge help as she navigates her work and home life.

As people services director for the Denver-based health-care company DaVita, Chau said she has the ability to work from home and adjust her hours as needed. That came in handy when her son was starting a new school and she wanted to be able to do pick-up and drop-offs as he eased into his new environment, she said. "At no time did I ever feel that there was any hesitation on my supervisor's part to support me."

In fact, that feeling of support and understanding is evident across the board, like when meetings needed to be rescheduled to accommodate family obligations, she added.

"Beyond that, that it's the appreciation that moms do bring different qualities and contributions… to the company and we want moms to continue to find fulfillment in their personal life and feeling that they don't have to choose one over the other," said Chau.

While Chau's situation may not yet be the norm across the country, it is what advocates are hoping catches on.

Bright Horizons' Bearfield said it is important for managers and colleagues of working mothers to make a concerted effort to not view having children has a roadblock for career progression. Instead, they need to be embraced, she said.

In fact, in the same Bright Horizons study, 84 percent of employed Americans said they believe that having working moms in leadership roles will make the business more successful.

"We're still talking about gender roles. We're still talking about the difference. It is so ingrained in our culture," Bearfield said. "We provide flexibility, we provide work life integration, but we are still making decisions differently and that's what really needs to change."

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