September 8, 2022 is Moms Equal Pay Day. Moms in the United States earn 58 cents for every dollar dads earn, which means they had to work all of last year, plus eight months into 2022, to earn what dads earned in 2021 alone.
Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?
The parental pay gap is attributed to two phenomena—the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood bonus—each widening the pay gap from different directions.
The “motherhood penalty,” in which a mom’s wages fail to keep up with their peers when they become a mother or add new children to their family. It cannot be explained by other factors, including seniority or education. The current motherhood penalty for a working mom is 15% of her income per child under age 5.
Mothers from other marginalized communities face an additional racial wage gap on top of this:
The motherhood penalty costs mothers an estimated $161,000 to $600,000 over the course of their careers.
While mothers see a reduction in pay after welcoming a little bundle of joy into the world, fathers actually see an increase in pay.
Men in professional and managerial occupations receive a 7% increase after becoming fathers, and men in other occupations see a 4% increase, on average. Another study in the UK found that fathers over age 42 saw a wage difference of 21% compared to non-fathers in the same age group.
The motherhood bias exists beyond pay, affecting expectations as well. Mothers are expected to prioritize their children over work, but men are often expected to do the opposite. For instance, mothers are frequently asked who is caring for their children while they work—but fathers rarely get that question (if ever). When work and childcare conflict, the mother is expected to pick up the slack at home, and fathers may be given very little flexibility at work.
As fathers are generally higher earners, the same expectations can manifest at home. Working parents can feel the need to prioritize the highest paying job. This can lead to mothers taking on more child care and household responsibilities, which requires many to deprioritize work in lieu of child care—or leave the workforce altogether. In this way, expectation biases further impact the parenthood wage gap.
Daycare and school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how these expectations affect mothers differently than fathers. One-third of working-age women who weren’t working during this time cite child care concerns as their reason for not working, compared to only 12% of working age men. And women who take just one year off work experience a 39% reduction in annual earnings, further affecting their lifetime earning potential.
The motherhood penalty doesn’t take 15% off a woman’s salary as soon as a child is born. Rather, pay inequities creep up on working moms slowly and compound over time as pay increases and promotions fail to keep up with those of their peers.
Regular compensation analyses can help you spot these inequities and address them. While this analysis may not be perfect if you don’t have data around each employee’s parental status, you can still use gender data as a proxy.
For starters, you might:
If you find cases that don’t appear to align with your pay philosophy, dig into why so you can take action to correct discrepancies and improve pay equity.
When hiring managers believed a woman had children because “Parent-Teacher Association Coordinator” was listed on her resume, she was 79% less likely to be hired. And if she was hired, she would be offered an average salary of $11,000 less.
Maternal biases in the workplace are holding women back, and the best way to be an ally is to speak up when you see or hear them at work. For example, if a qualified candidate is being overlooked for an open role, question why. Or if you hear a colleague is being passed up for a promotion because she just had a baby and must be overwhelmed at home, suggest that she be included in the discussion.
Tip: Lean In compiled a handy training called 50 Ways to Fight Bias that highlights common issues women face in the workplace and how to address them. It’s free, and there’s a whole set of scenarios focused on Supporting working parents.
Using salary history or asking for salary expectations to make compensation decisions can widen existing wage gaps. This is especially true for moms who have left the workforce for extended periods as their salary history won’t reflect the record wage growth their peers are experiencing.
Instead, build a compensation strategy with job levels and salary ranges and use that to provide fair, consistent pay.
This is so important that a growing number of states have enacted pay equity laws to ban salary history inquiries and require that employers share salary ranges in certain scenarios.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge in overcoming the motherhood pay gap is a deeply rooted perception that child care is a woman’s work.
We see this play out at home, as working mothers spend 8 hours a day on direct and secondary child care while working an average of 6.1 hours. Meanwhile, working fathers spend 5.2 hours on child care while working 7.7 hours per day.
We also see the effect this has on the workforce participation rate, as 66% of US mothers with children under 6 years old held a job compared with 94% of fathers.
Family-friendly policies and benefits can help us continue to unravel gender roles, enable parents to share child care and household responsibilities more equally, and keep women in the workplace. For example:
Supporting both mothers and fathers in the workplace enables parents to share child care responsibilities so we can make progress in closing the motherhood wage gap.
Equal Pay Days are a reminder of the inequities marginalized groups face in the workplace and a time to reflect on changes you can make toward a more inclusive company. There’s still much work to be done, but every step in the right direction gets us closer to closing the gender wage gap and eliminating the motherhood penalty.