Motherhood penalty to blame for the gender pay gap. Here’s how to solve it.

Women in every economy around the world earn less than their male counterparts. In the US, women earn about 79% of what men do. Canadian women fair a bit better, earning about 82 cents for every dollar a man does. In Japan, women earn 73% of what men do. Denmark, too, experiences a 15% gender pay gap.

The discrepancy starts off small. In a study of MBA grads, there was a $15,000 wage gap between men and women in their first year on the job. In the early career years, this gap grows only marginally. During this time, as many suggest, women can proactively negotiate salaries and pay rises to help close the gap.

I don’t disagree with these strategies. The problem, however, is that women who negotiate a higher salary or ask for a raise are considered aggressive, intimidating or bossy. Characteristics that demerit women at work.

Yet, even when negotiations are done right. They take women only so far.

In the same study of MBA grads, by the time they reached their ninth anniversary on the job men out-earn women by 60%. And, it’s not for a lack of trying or aspiration on women’s behalfs. Instead, it’s a result of the gender gap in promotions. Women are 18% less likely to be promoted than their male peers. This starts with the first promotion to manager, which usually comes with income boost, and continues to be the case at every subsequent level thereafter.

So, what’s causing this gap after almost 10 years on the job?

Professionals with about a decade in the workforce are typically in their early 30s. This is the average age of first time mothers in North America. With 86% of women having children today, the pay gap, then, has less to do with our poor negotiating skills and more to do with the penalties of motherhood.

According to one study, childbearing accounts for 80% of the gender wage gap.

Unmarried, childless women continue to earn about the same as their male counterparts. Yet, once married, women’s earning potential begins to see a decline. A foreshadowing of what will come once they bear children. Men, be they fathers or not, continue to see a steady rise in their income levels over their careers.

The discrepancy between mothers and fathers comes down to who’s doing the work at home.

Women continue to perform the bulk of childcare and household chores – no matter how much they work or earn outside the home. This responsibility propels some women to take extended leaves out of the workforce or choose jobs with reduced working hours. For others, the weight of the physical and mental load at home dampens career aspirations. All of which creates long-lasting impacts to their earning trajectories.

Even when domestic responsibilities are more equally shared with partners and others, mothers are still penalized. That is, they are assumed to be otherwise preoccupied with their role as mom and wife. This bias leads managers and colleagues to perceive mothers as less committed to their careers, less capable to perform their duties and less ambitious in their careers. All of which holds women back professionally and financially.

We need a more collective solution that will tip the scales in favor of families.

The gender pay gap isn’t only a woman’s issue. It’s an economic one that has long-lasting effects on children and families. And, the solution starts with encouraging paternity leave.

A growing number of countries offer progressive paid parental leave programs that can be shared between both parents. However, mothers continue to take the majority of leave times. From a financial perspective this makes sense for many families. Yet, more often, the decision is made to align with traditional gender lines: women are mothers and fathers are breadwinners.

Progressive leave programs like these are, no doubt, bettering the quality of family life for whole nations. But, they do so at the expense of women’s progress.

With long leave times of a year or more, women settle into their role as primary caregiver and home manager. Fathers have the bandwidth to learn to be a working parent while continuing to focus on building their career. Roles and behaviors that are hard to shake once mom returns to work. This further entrenches partners into traditional gender roles. And, it deepens biases that shape how mothers are perceived at work.

Financially, women also lose out. Aside from the income they may lose during their leave, women miss out on potential bonuses or pay rises they would have otherwise received. Plus, a year out of work creates a gap in experience where women miss out on career-advancing opportunities. These losses when compounded for each child results in almost 30% decrease in overall salary.

To get ahead, women have to get back to work sooner.

And, dad needs to step out of his career to take on the primary care needs of their children. We’re already seeing more dads taking parental leave. And, the results point to the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development benefits for babies.

It’s not just baby who benefits. Mother does, too. With her partner taking the lead at home, a mother can adjust to life as a working parent. And, with someone at home to take the night shift, cook dinners and run errands, mothers have the room they need to get back up to speed at work after maternity leave. She’ll be saved from the guilt, worry and stress that usually affects a new mother’s confidence. All of which will position women to continue to grow their careers and income levels.

Paternity or partner leave also sets the stage for long-term involvement in childrearing and contributing to household chores. Both of which will go a long way in redefining outdated ideas of what constitutes “women’s work”, while creating new social norms for men.

To get more dads on duty, mothers, governments and companies need to come together.

This starts with policy. With the benefits of paternity leave, more countries are considering how best to extend their family leave programs to encourage more fathers to take leave. The Nordic countries are doing so with promising success: the majority of fathers in Sweden (90%), Norway (89%) and Iceland (84%) spend time at home caring for their children. Taking a cue from these programs, Canada recently proposed to expand its parental leave policy. Fathers and non-birth parents may receive an additional 5 to 8 weeks family leave if they take time out of their careers to care for their child.

But it’s not enough to have policies in place. Families, specifically mothers, need to negotiate a more equal division of leave times that will benefit the child, while advancing women’s earning potential for her family.

Companies also play a role. Companies need to institute policies that undo the stigma and penalties usually placed upon men for taking time for family-care responsibilities. Further, they need to cultivate cultures that more equally support and encourage men to take time out of their careers for family leave.

Doing so will help close the wage gap that financially holds mothers back.


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