As a working middle class mom who lives the struggle of balancing work with family, I was disappointed by what I saw as short-sighted responses by both Obama and Romney on this past Tuesday night’s debate. When asked about equal pay, Obama touted the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009) as a recent accomplishment working towards closing the pay equity gap in America and Romney spoke of flex-time to accommodate moms (and of course the great “Binders of Women”).
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is certainly a worthy and helpful move forward to try to close the gender pay gap in the U.S. Accommodating working moms with flex-time is also helpful. Obama’s assertion that this is not just a women’s issue but is a family issue certainly hits home, and I might add that it is fundamentally an economic issue of concern to our entire society.
However, I didn’t get the sense from either candidate that they really understand the underlying constraints that women and families face in juggling work and childcare responsibilities that contributes to pay inequity. Most importantly, I didn’t hear from either one any new ideas or an actionable agenda to really move us forward on this issue.
Here’s the problem- working toward correcting institutional pay inequities and demanding equal pay for equal work only addresses a small part of the issue. But what about the cultural and biological constraints underlying pay inequity that I believe are far more the cause of the continuing pay gap between men and women in this country? There are many equality issues that affect women that are not working moms, of course, but here I am going to focus on what I see as fundamental that affect working women in their child-bearing years in particular.
Women in the U.S. disproportionately leave the workforce when they have children because of high child care costs and an inflexible culture. That results in a significant opportunity cost for working women not just in earnings but higher income and promotion potential.
Let’s, for example, take a man and a woman that are 30 years old with engineering degrees. They went to the same college, both did well in school, and both have 8 years of professional experience under their belt. They both make $70,000 a year with full benefits. Now they each get married and at the same time have their first babies.
Chances are that the man, however, continues working, but the woman leaves the work force for five years until her child is old enough to go to all day kindergarten. If she has two or three children, she might leave the workforce for a decade.
Now let’s say this woman, at age 40, decides to return to work. In the past decade her male counterpart had three promotions, pay increases, and now has an additional 10 years of professional experience under his belt. He now makes $130,000 per year. The woman interviews for several jobs and is able to get a mid-level professional position at a firm, re-entering the workforce with a salary of $80,000 per year at the same level she left ten years later, which adjusted for inflation would probably be the same salary she had before she left the work force.
Is this fair? Does the Lilly Ledbetter Act address this issue? Would this woman be able to sue the company for a higher salary? I personally believe the answer is no to all of these questions. One could argue that it was the woman’s choice to leave the workforce for a decade. No one forced her- that was her choice, right? I don’t think it is completely a woman’s choice, and just as Obama and Romney talked about creating a hostile environment to force immigrants to choose to move out of the country, we should also acknowledge that perhaps there is a hostile environment for working moms that force them to choose to leave the workforce. Here’s why:
1) It often doesn’t make economic sense for women to continue working in this country after they become mothers. During a woman’s childbearing age she is most likely to be an entry- or mid-level professional. Let’s take the average salary of about $44,000 per year and do the math. First, let’s pay taxes (25%), and reduce her take-home income to $33,000. Let’s also say her husband earns $50,000 per year so if they both continue working they can take a 20% tax credit up to $6,000 per year for two children. Let’s say they live in Chicago, where the average cost of a good day care is about $24,000 for one child. With two children under age 4 in day care at $48,000 per year, or $42,000 a year after the tax credit, the woman is still paying $11,000 ($42K-$33K after taxes) to go to work.
This is just one example, using a city with high child care costs, but many major cities across the U.S. have similar child care costs. So, what are her options? She can either continue working at a loss with the reassurance that her child is in a safe, healthy environment. This might make-up for the opportunity cost of leaving the workforce for 5-10 years so that she can be earning $130,000 in ten years like her male counterpart, rather than re-entering at 60 percent of his salary. So maybe it’s worth it to continue working?
Otherwise, she can try and get cheaper child care. Lots of day cares exist that are not top-notch, but the environment might not be ideal (E.g. think small store-front day care on a busy street), the staff might not be ideal (E.g. think high turn-over and unqualified, underpaid staff), and this may result in constant worry. Yet, many mom’s don’t have the luxury to choose a more expensive top-notch day care in this country. So begins here the socio-economic divide in quality of care and education that people receive in our country.
So let’s take a typical working mom’s day. She might wake-up at 5AM, pump her breast milk if she has an infant or toddler that nurses, gets herself ready, prepares breakfast and meals for the day, breastfeeds the young children, gets older ones off to daycare and/or school, and by 8AM is commuting to work (let’s say 30 minutes- 1 hour). She finishes work at 5:30PM so she can pick-up the kids by 6:00PM, rushes older kids to soccer and music lessons, and tries to prepare dinner by 7:30PM before she shuffles the kids off to bed and falls asleep exhausted.
After doing this for a little while, she might take a look around her, and wonder why in the world she is doing this, with so much stress, when she isn’t even gaining anything economically. What if that mom is working for minimum wage and constantly worrying about her child’s quality of care while she is away, potentially all day working two different jobs to make ends meet. No wonder more and more well-qualified working moms choose to stay home. No wonder welfare might look like a better option. It just isn’t worth it.
However, the reality is that women in the U.S. make up the vast majority of consumers that drives much of our economy. Further, much of our economy is moving toward the online sphere which women also dominate as consumers. I’d argue there is an inherent market-based value in companies and firms hiring women re-entering the workforce after raising children. They have an incredible valuable wealth of experience and knowledge that can contribute to innovation and fresh ideas that targets women consumers in this country. Smart companies will value this and cash-in on the added value of by compensating her for her opportunity cost of leaving the workforce.
2) Our culture does not, in general, accommodate or value working moms. Working moms too often are sent messages that they aren’t valued in their roles as mothers. I actually took great offense to several media responses to the debate (such as an op-ed by the NY Times) that make light of the responsibilities women have, like needing to return home at a reasonable hour to pick kids up from school, spend time with them, and prepare dinner. Someone has to give kids food, and hopefully it’s a well-balanced nutritious dinner given the childhood obesity and health problems on the rise in this country. That could be a mom, dad, or same-sex partner, of course. But let’s operate in the reality of the culture we live in where most women, whether working or not, are still primarily responsible for childcare, cooking, and household responsibilities.
The problem is that our country has made great progress toward opening doors for women to opportunities for women in education and work. Women are valuable members of the productive workforce, and that is largely recognized. However, we are still in a transition, because although women are now more and more entering the workforce, in general women’s time burden at home has not been reduced. Hence more recent backlash among my generation of women that are saying, “We are not super heroes. We can’t do it all. We want to be good moms to our children. We want to spend time with them. My family is important to me.”
There are many of us who question the value of working 60 hour work weeks to climb up the ranks in the context of a male-dominated and masculine-defined work culture where staying late at the office is a signal of hard-work. I personally view it as inefficiency or severe under-staffing in a poorly run business. We as women value our education and our professions, but in the end there are trade-offs, and some of us don’t necessarily view sacrificing our families and relationships with our children as a worthy trade-off to spend most of our days in hostile male-defined work environments.
I personally have zero interest in rising to the top of the ranks and becoming like a man. My ideal is rising to the top of the ranks in a feminine-defined world where men and women from any sexual orientation are valued both as productive employees and as members of families, with or without children. My ideal is working in a society where companies and government agencies realize that they will have more productive, efficient, and loyal workers when all men and women feel valued as parents, siblings, children, spouses, and partners and concrete actions are taken to make sure that everyone can enjoy a balanced life. At the end of life, I don’t want to look back and see it full of successes in meeting deadlines, scoring clients, or rising to the top; I want to look back and see that I’ve contributed to joy, happiness, and love to my family and my society as a whole- both as a parent and as a productive member of the workforce.
Right now, women in particular are often met with a disapproving and hostile work environment if they have to take time off for a prenatal appointment, a sick day to stay with their child with the flu, take, leave work every day no later than 5PM to pick up their kids from school or daycare, or take 2-3 breaks during the day to pump breast milk. A woman might be valued less because she isn’t staying late until 8pm like her child-less female colleague or her male colleague. She might be told that people know she is pumping her milk in the empty office down the hall which is distracting and disrupting to several male colleagues, and people complain about her storing bottles of pumped milk in the shared office refrigerator. She might be told at her annual performance review that she might do better if she focuses more on exuding an identity of a professional rather than an identity as a mother. Do you know of any woman who has experienced something like this? I know plenty. These subtle yet pervasive messages that permeate work environments across this country contribute to a hostile environment that pushes woman out.
So basically here we are at a point in time where great progress has been made legally to ensure equal opportunity. But culturally and socially we still lag behind, and the people who suffer are the women that are now expected to rise at the top, but are still primary care providers at home. Until our culture and society catch up with our ideals, working moms in this country are, quite frankly, in a constant losing battle.
That’s why, as a working mom who intimately knows about these issues, I would love one of our two male candidates to really speak to me and show me that he does not only fundamentally understand the cultural constraints to women’s equal pay, but is planning on doing something about it. Let’s really move our country forward- let’s be progressive. Here are some ideas:
1) Start a task-force and conduct an in-depth analysis that identifies all of the gender-based constraints that women and families face in achieving pay equity because of cultural and social and identify tangible solutions to help culture and society catch up with the legal and policy framework set in our country
2) Since market incentives may not be readily apparent to the private sector until they start implementing family-oriented practices that really work, the government could provide tax incentives for companies that meet defined performance criteria on accommodating family life all women and men regardless of their parental status or sexual orientation. Specific company practices could include:
– On-site child-care
– On-site lactation and pumping rooms with milk storage
– Flex time
– Fair maternity and paternity leave for everyone including same-sex couples
– Rewards and incentives for employees for productivity and efficiency rather than long hours (E.g. discourage productivity but do not reward or celebrate longer than 8 hour work days and working nights and weekends)
– Pro-rated salary offers for parents re-entering the workforce after taking time off after having a child (recognizing that this could be controversial)
3) Address the cost of child care in this country to ensure women are not being forced out of the work force after having a baby
4) Review government work environments and practices to ensure family-friendly work environments are practices (E.g. the U.S. government 1420 form that calculates lower rates for a woman contractor that might have been working part-time after having a baby)
5) Systematically integrate into early education a curriculum that challenges traditional gender norms that still make women primary caretakers within households
The bottom-line is that the more we foster a family-oriented culture within the structure of equal gender roles in our general society and in our homes, the more happy we are going to be. I believe that will make us more productive individuals. Depression, discontent, and disgruntlement do not drive innovation, efficiency, and productivity. There is a great amount of knowledge and talent among women and men in this country that could be unleashed if they had an amenable working environment to work in and left them happy. This, in my opinion, is truly at the heart of a strong, thriving, and sustainable economy.