Why Do Working Moms Make Less?

By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
Women – and mothers in particular – have made tremendous gains in the workplace over the past two decades, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office‘s recent Glass Ceiling Report is making many mothers in management positions feel as if they’re taking one step forward and two steps back.

“I call this the mom bomb,” said Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, chair of the Joint Economic Committee, who commissioned the report. “When men become fathers their pay goes up and when women become moms their pay goes down.”

The report revealed that working moms are not only making less than their male colleagues, but they’re also making less than their childless female colleagues. This has been deemed “the motherhood penalty” and it’s something we’ve covered extensively here at The Glass Hammer. But according to new The Glass Ceiling Report, the problem doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

The Numbers – Mom Bomb in Action

Here are the numbers: In a comparison of the years 2000 and 2007, women comprised 49 percent of non-managerial workers in both years, but their representation in management rose slightly from 39 percent to 40 percent. The Glass Ceiling Report and other reports like it give us a clear view into the hardships women face, while providing little insight as to why the numbers remain so low.

All we really know is that marriage and children can be a career roadblock, but only for women. In 2007, 74 percent of men in management were married, compared to 59 percent of women. Fifty-seven percent of the men had no dependent children, with 63 percent of women having no dependent children. Twenty-seven percent of the men had at least two children, while only 20 percent of women did.

So, as of 2007, females make up just 40 percent of managers and earn 81 cents for every dollar a man earns and working moms have seen no pay improvement whatsoever. The report did reveal a silver lining: women are actively shrinking the pay gap. In 2000, females made up 39 percent of managers and earned just 79 cents for every dollar a male colleague made doing similar work.

But, women with children under the age of 18 made no progress – and continue to make just 79 cents for every dollar men earn.

But Why Does the Gap Persist?

What’s been difficult to pinpoint is exactly why working mothers are being paid less.

Maloney believes it is a combination of discrimination and cultural bias, but according to the Cornell study Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty, working mothers aren’t just getting paid less; they’re also being perceived differently. The study’s experiments found that mothers were penalized on a host of measures, including perceived competence and recommended starting salary.

Men were not penalized for, and sometimes benefited from, being a parent. The study actually showed that employers discriminate against mothers, but not against fathers. According to Robert Drago, Research Director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, these differences are a reflection of an even bigger problem.

Bias Avoidance Strategies

In his blog for The Huffington Post, Drago explained the dangers of bias avoidance strategies.

“Here’s how it works: If you think your co-workers or bosses view care-giving commitments as a negative, then you will either avoid these commitments entirely or hide them when you have them. When men take on care-giving responsibilities, that’s fine; it is automatically assumed that family will not interfere with work. On the other hand, when women take on care-giving roles, they are no longer taken seriously; instead, they are ‘just moms’,” Drago said.

“Bias avoidance behaviors are rooted in the harsh reality that women still perform more housework and provide more childcare than men. However, young men are doing more housework and are more involved in childcare today than ever, yet the outdated workplace expectations that induce bias avoidance remain.”

Our country’s response to how working women are being treated has admittedly been less than ideal, but Drago believes small steps are being made in the way of progress. For example, many leading employers have recognized the economic danger of forcing women to engage in bias avoidance strategies. “We lose the productivity of many of our most talented citizens when they ‘choose’ to make family commitments,” Drago said. These employers are striving to be family-responsive and are making it their goal to retain talented women, regardless of their care-giving commitments.

Does Motherhood Have to Mean Sacrificing a Career?

For women like Melissa Hoistion, the idea of getting paid less than male or childless female colleagues may eventually begin to seem appealing. This is because after removing herself from the workforce to have her daughter, Hoistion and many women like her struggle to even get back the career they had before having children.

At the age of 28, Hoistion had just become an account executive at a mid-level firm when she got married and had a baby soon after. She experienced a particularly difficult pregnancy and was put on bed rest for a majority of it, so she decided to leave the firm and take two years off: one for her pregnancy and the other to be present for the first year of her first child’s life. The problems began when she tried to rejoin the workforce.

“When I wanted to come back, I couldn’t find a job. Everyone else in my field with my skill level was advancing when I was taking time off,” Hoistion said. “I was no longer familiar with new media and people had moved and I no longer had any connections. Everyone said that I needed to start over from the bottom and it was difficult going back to being an assistant, but in order to put food on the table you do what you have to.”

Hoistion worked “at the bottom” for about a year before deciding to freelance. She said freelancing actually turned out to be good for her, because it enabled her to spend time with her daughter, but seeing former colleagues who were her age and working at director and VP levels was difficult.

Later on, Hoistion obtained a job at another firm, but she was recently let go due to the recession and is currently doing freelance work part-time. Having her first child was one of the most beautiful times of her life, she said, but it was also marked by struggle, financial insecurity, and uncertainty that still lingers today. Though Hoistion is able to rationalize why so many employers treat their female employees the way they do, it doesn’t alleviate the frustration and aggravation she feels.

“Employers don’t want people who take time off; it’s not efficient. The people who work the hardest with the fewest days off are the ones who advance the fastest. As a working mother, you can’t stay at work until 8 p.m., when most day care centers close by 6 or 6:30 p.m. As an employer, if you have to choose between someone who is a mom and will need a certain amount of leeway and someone who isn’t going to need that, you go with the one who will work the longer hours. It stinks, but there isn’t much you can do about it,” Hoistion said. “I definitely feel like I was punished for taking time off to have my daughter and it’s really sad, but women are punished for having children. I think this is part of the reason why many are now waiting so long to have children; they see that once you have a child, you get left behind in your career.”

Hoistion’s daughter is now eight-years-old and though choosing to have a child presented many obstacles, the Freehold, New Jersey mother wouldn’t change a thing. For women on the career track who are thinking of having a child, Hoistion does have some excellent advice. She recommends working something out with your employer before you have your child, that way you have a job – and a paycheck – to come back to. Even if it means working from home or only working part-time, she believes, it’s better than nothing. “In the end, if you are going to do it, just be prepared to make sacrifices,” Hoistion said.