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Chapter Seven: Realistic and Fair Wages

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Chapter Seven:

R: Realistic and Fair Wages


Audrey, wearing her veterinarian’s lab coat, walked into the examination room where a large, lethargic, primarily white cat with orange tabby coloring named Boomer was resting on the metal examination table. The animal technicians had already come in and taken Boomer’s temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. Audrey reviewed their findings on the chart before she walked into the room to find Boomer’s owners hovering nervously next to the table.

Mothers and Non-Mothers


A recent study found that mothers were 44 percent less likely to be hired than nonmothers for the same job given the exact same resume and experience for the two groups of women (mothers and non-mothers). And nonmothers were offered an average of $11,000 more than mothers for that same high-salaried job.

Audrey got her degree at the University of Pennsylvania,School of Veterinary Medicine, one of the top veterinary schools in the country, in 1993. An experienced veterinarian, she picked up Boomer and expertly examined him starting with his head and moving all the way down his body to his tail. The owners told her that Boomer hadn’t been eating, had been drinking lots of water, and generally didn’t seem to be feeling well. They adored their feline companion of more than a decade and were worried about what was going on with him.

Audrey had her suspicions, so she took some blood work to run a panel of diagnostic tests and told them she’d get back to them the next day. This was just one appointment of a series of back-to-back thirty-minute appointments that started at 8:30 A.M. and ended at 6:30 P.M.

As Audrey did her work with the animals, another veterinarian with similar education and work experience was also seeing animals in the same clinic. They worked side by side, doing essentially the same job. But there was one big difference: the pay.

Audrey, the mother of two elementary school-aged daughters, was making a couple of dollars less per hour than her coworker who, while also a woman, didn’t have any children. Not a lot of money per hour, but the total wage loss adds up over time.

Audrey’s experience puts a face to the statistics that show, on the whole, non-mothers make more than mothers. It’s not just Audrey in this predicament, and it’s not just faceless “big businesses” that have a part in this discrimination. This scenario plays out across the country on a daily basis. “She was doing the same job and had the same education and experience,” recalls Audrey, “and we had a boss who was also a woman who didn’t have children, and the whole dynamic was horrible.”

As we’ve discussed through this book, women like Audrey aren’t just imagining that the wage discrimination they experience in the workforce may be related to them being mothers. Here it is front and center again: We face growing wage gaps between mothers and non-mothers (in 1991, non-mothers with an average age of thirty made 90 cents to a man’s dollar, while moms made only 73 cents to the dollar, and single moms made 56 to 66 cents to a man’s dollar). And this maternal pay gap has been growing. The pay gap between mothers and non-mothers actually expanded from 10 percent in 1980 to 17.5 percent in 1991.

Yes, it’s with motherhood—a time when families need more economic support for basic needs, childcare, and healthcare; not less support—that women take the biggest economic hits in the form of lower pay. And, it’s also with motherhood that some clues appear as to how the wage gap can be narrowed.

Dr. Shelley Correll’s groundbreaking research released in 2005 is a compelling addition to the long line of studies that explore the roots of this maternal wage gap. This study, like others, also found that the wage gap wasn’t linked to selflimiting factors that might cause a wage gap, like mothers taking more time off to care for children, but in actuality is fairly straightforward discrimination. In other words, it’s not mothers’ “fault” they receive less pay.

The basic findings: Mothers are 44 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers for the same job given the exact same resume and experience for the two groups of women (mothers and non-mothers). Her study also found that mothers are offered significantly lower starting pay. Study participants offered nonmothers an average of $11,000 more than mothers for the same high salaried job as equally qualified non-mothers.

“We expected to find that moms were going to be discriminated against, but I was surprised by the magnitude of the gap,” comments Dr. Correll. “I expected small numbers but we found huge numbers. Another thing was that fathers were actually advantaged and we didn’t expect fathers to be offered more money or to be rated higher.” But that’s what happened. A study by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, found the same thing: Men don’t take wage hits after having children, women do.

Critics often assume that the mothers studied tended to have less education or work experience than non-mothers, thus skewing the findings; yet the Waldfogel study filtered the data to account for education and work experience, and the Correll study had equal resumes so there weren’t any differences in education and work experience. Something is really going on here.

And that “something” has a tremendous impact on poverty rates for women and families. Women in low-wage jobs are not advancing up and out of those positions at the same rate as men, and women in high-wage jobs are being offered less pay. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, notes, “We did a study that found if there wasn’t a wage gap, the poverty rates for single moms would be cut in half, and the poverty rates for dual earner families would be cut by about 25 percent.”

This brings us to the heart of the matter—and to some ideas for solutions. Waldfogel writes in The Journal of Economic Perspectives that one reason for the widening American maternal wage gap “may be the institutional structure in the United States, which has emphasized equal pay and equal opportunity policies, but not family policies such as maternity leave and childcare. Other industrialized countries that have implemented family policies along with their gender policies seem to have had better success at narrowing both the gender gap and the family gap.” Family policies such as paid family leave, as well as subsidized child and universal healthcare, have been shown to help close the maternal gap in other countries. Flexible work options that include all men and women (so those that use the flexible work options aren’t marginalized) are also important.

Audrey eventually quit the job she held at that veterinary clinic, and took a job where being a mother wasn’t a liability. It made all the difference in the world, and she is very happy with her job now—and in fact is better paid, “I’m at a kid friendly clinic now. I have a boss who has children and she’s the primary breadwinner. Her husband is staying home with the kids. It’s so different, they understand flexibility of scheduling and that if my child is sick then I might need to call and switch coverage with another veterinarian. They understand that if you come to a meeting on your day off, then you may need to bring your child—and they’ll pick a kid friendly restaurant to go to for that meeting. None of these things were available at the other place I worked.”

There is some variation among like-minded thinkers about what to do first to close the wage gap. Heather Boushey, economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that flexible work options need to be addressed in order to close the wage gap. “There are so many different layers to women’s pay issues. On the one hand, there is the pay equity question. But there is also this question about valuing care and allowing workers to provide care for their family members. So if you want to equalize the labor market then you have to find some way to address this issue—either by offering paid leave to both women and men—and increasing the propensity of men taking that leave—or by finding some other way to reduce the penalties for breaks in employment.”

Marsha Meyer, a professor at the School of Social Work, University of Washington, and co-author of Families That Work, agrees, and adds, “Many people say that it should be okay for women to work as many long hours as men, not take career breaks with kids, and to put in long enough hours to be CEOs, tenured professors, and partners in law firms, but what we argue in our book is that this solution ignores kids, and ignores the social benefits we all get from someone taking care of kids. It’s not just women working more hours, but men being able to have the flexibility and incentives to take care of kids as well.” Otherwise, she comments, what happens is that women end up taking all the leave because they often have lower salaries than their husbands, which makes it economically smarter for families to live on the higher salary. If this pattern keeps repeating, then the wage gap doesn’t close, Meyer argues, but is reinforced.

In the end, maternal bias is a reality we must address if we value both fair treatment in the workplace and the contributions working mothers make to our economy. No matter which policy area is worked on first, there’s little question that paid family leave for both parents, flexible work options, access to quality healthcare, affordable childcare, and realistic wages are all tied together and need to be brought front and center in our national conversation. The motherhood wage gap needs to be closed.

Vicky Lovell, Study Director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, ties it all together. “Families can’t function well if they don’t have adequate income. And if people don’t have pay that is high enough, then they may have to take jobs that aren’t workable for them because they are too far away from home for them to have time to see their children, they may put off preventative healthcare, or even put off trips to the emergency room, or struggle with finding adequate childcare. To be family-friendly we have to provide holistic supports for the entire family. Economic security is part of being able to care for your family.”

The root of economic security starts with being able to make a high enough wage to afford basic food, housing, healthcare, and other living necessities. Many families are struggling with minimum and very low wage jobs that frankly don’t provide a living wage. This impacts women, mothers in particular, more than others because they are less likely to move up and out of minimum wage positions over time, and are paid less than men on the whole. Gender as well as maternal discrimination and low-wage jobs are linked. Working to raise the bar of wage floors is particularly helpful to women and children. In fact, a report found a majority of the employees who would benefit from an increased minimum wage (62 percent) are women.