Bias Against Mothers
August 15, 2023. Today is Mothers’ Equal Pay Day – a time for bringing awareness to the harmful biases that gender roles play in the workplace. Mothers are often met with unequal pay compared to fathers, which reinforces the historical status quo of women as caregivers less capable or determined than their male counterparts. In reality, this inaccurate interpretation of working mothers puts a hindrance on women’s rights at large – mothers receiving equal pay is one step closer to all women receiving equal pay.
In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was signed that prohibited sex-based discrimination from employers in wages. During this time, women were making 59 cents for every dollar men made, which is a considerable improvement in contrast to the current 82 cents for every dollar their male counterpart earned. Moreover, the gender pay gap turns into 74 cents on the dollar when taking mothers into consideration, and is even worse when discussing women of color. Native, Latina and Black mothers earn 49, 51, and 53 cents, respectively, for every dollar a white father makes. Although the gap has narrowed over time with newly enacted laws and reformed perspectives, given the above statistics, it is undeniable that the Equal Pay Act is grossly inadequate.
A primary factor that leads to mothers’ wage gap is that men experience more ease throughout their working lives that allows them to experience a steady increase, whereas for women the gap widens when they have children making it so that they are unable to catch up.
The “motherhood penalty” is the wage punishment mothers often face in the workplace after having children. Not only is it reflected in their income, but in employer treatment as well. It is often contrasted with the “fatherhood bonus,” which is the flip-side of the coin when describing working families. This term explains the common, overall positive workplace behavior in which men are greeted with when having a child. Fathers generally receive more advantages — such as wage bonuses and higher perceived moral goodness — as “fatherhood is seen as a valued characteristic by employers.”
The fatherhood bonus could be attributed to the fact that parenthood has generally been viewed as a father’s choice and a mother’s duty. It is all too common for there to be an absentee father rather than an absentee mother in American households. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 1 in 4 children live without a father figure in the household — whether it is a biological, step, or adoptive father. In 2022 alone, there were 15.78 million children living in a single-mother household compared to the 3.44 million living with a single father.
This has led not to harmful societal movements not only in the motherhood penalty, but also perpetuated the special treatment of a father’s care for his children compared to a mother’s obligatory care for hers when she does the same actions. A mother’s commitment to child rearing is considered to be a hindrance to her dedication to work, whereas a father’s proves just the opposite.
In addition, many employers do not proffer caregiving benefits or flexible work schedules. And as prices all across the country increase, so does the cost of daily childcare. For women without a financial support system to rely on, this high cost of childcare requires them to quit their jobs or narrow their work availability. However, the women that do not have this luxury often end up directing all their earnings towards childcare, which places just another strain on day-to-day living expenses. A 2022 Cost of Care Survey reports that 72% of parents claimed infant care costs 10% of their overall income, and 51% of participants spent more than 20%.
If the topic of childcare is this burdensome to typical two-parent households, the stress it puts on single-parent households is tenfold — especially when considering the unjust pay treatment of mothers.
Higher levels of education do not even deter the detrimental impacts of the motherhood penalty. According to the National Women’s Law Center, mothers must have a bachelor’s degree for her “typical earnings [to] exceed that of fathers with just a high school degree.” In addition, regardless of her education level, it is typical for a mother’s income to not surpass $89,000 a year. Simple research into America’s richest people can prove this to be true – Forbes’ 2022 list of the top 400 richest Americans boasts many more men than women. Whether this definitively speaks towards the motherhood penalty or is a culmination of other factors, it is still something too coincidental to not take into consideration.
While the data is discouraging, there have been thousands of grassroot launched to combat the ever growing concern of mother’s equal pay. First and foremost, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is critical to fully eliminating the gender pay gap. Once the ERA is enshrined in our Constitution, unequal pay claims are given more validity in court under a strict scrutiny standard of review – this goes for other cases of gender discrimination as well. In addition, Congress will be able to mandate federally instituted actions such as requiring pay transparency and eliminating the use of mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure agreements that enable gender-based wage discrimination.
Employer’s unequal pay to mothers is a reflection of the sexist patriarchal regime it follows that encourages women to stick to domesticity and compliance. Financially hindering women and mothers alike is counterproductive to the growth of society, let alone humanity itself. Our current policies were built off historic ideals of women and their roles in society; and as time molds those ideals, it is crucial for those policies to adapt to them. We need the ERA published in our Constitution to give us the tools necessary to address, among other things, the gender pay gap and the motherhood penalty, and send a loud message that all Americans are equal.