Progress At Work, But Mothers Still Pay a Price

My friend Stephanie Coontz has a terrific column in this weekend’s New York Times to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, signed into law on June 10th, 1963: Progress At Work, But Mothers Still Pay a Price. She makes the point that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

I want to highlight one point:

Much of the progress that women have made in income parity has gone to childless women. Motherhood, writes the sociologist Joya Misra, is now a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender in the United States. According to her research, conducted with Michelle Budig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, motherhood imposes about twice the earning penalty in the United States compared with what women face in countries that have expansive publicly financed child care systems.

The United States is an outlier; we do not provide a set of institutional supports to working families that make it possible to–sanely–address conflicts between work and family. This means that even though most families with children have two working parents, and a significant share of families with children are headed by a single working mother, and many families are now coping with aging parents who need care and help, there’s little support for the day-in, day-out struggles around work and care. We have no national child care system (yet!) and no national paid family leave. Judy Lichtman has made the observation that for Americans, having a newborn or a dealing with a health emergency leaves each of us in our own “private hell,” even though life happens to us all.

The lack of family-friendly policies makes it harder to be a good employee and do right by your family and contributes to the motherhood pay gap. One of the exciting things going on around the country is that people are beginning to say they’ve had enough. Over the past few years, California and New Jersey have implemented paid family and medical leave insurance programs, meaning that if you live in those states and have a baby or adopt a child or need time to care for an ailing family member, you can apply for benefits for up to six weeks. Other states and localities have implemented paid sick days laws, giving workers the right to earn paid days off to stay home when they are sick or have to care for a sick child. If we can change the institutions around us, we can make steps towards closing the motherhood pay gap.

Stephanie’s column relies on a number of great pieces from a compilation put together by the The Council on Contemporary Families in honor of today’s anniversary. My colleagues Sarah Jane Glynn and Jane Farrell contributed an excellent piece showing the gender pay gap by race and ethnicity, but I encourage you to check out the other nine, too!

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