In attempting to "unite" the country, Gov. George W. Bush should focus attention on women. Women voters favored Vice President Gore by 11 points in the recent election. For the first time, women will make up more than 10 percent of the Senate -- and could form the basis for a bipartisan coalition supporting policies that favor women, children and families. Most important, women are in need of solutions to the daily dilemma they face: balancing family and work, and the high price they and their families pay despite their efforts.

More than two decades after Betty Friedan's equality revolution and the passage of Title VII, women remain second-class economic citizens. They earn three-quarters of what men earn for every hour worked and, despite the flood of women into entry-level professional positions, they hold only 5 percent of top-level jobs.

Existing gender discrimination laws have helped, but they cannot do the job alone. It turns out that women pay a penalty not only for being women but also for becoming mothers. In fact, Columbia University's Jane Waldfogel has found that the wage gap for women without children is small: They earn 90 percent of what men earn per hour. Mothers earn only 73 percent of what men earn, even controlling for occupation, experience and education. A first child lowers a woman's earnings by 7.5 percent while a second child lowers her earnings by another 8 percent.

But that doesn't make conservatives -- and plenty of women I know -- right in believing that women have the same options as men, that they simply choose family over career. Sure, women make choices, but their options are severely constrained by the largely invisible choices made by employers, families and government. Our economy and society treat having a child as if it were a woman's private whim -- and extract a penalty from those who indulge. Call it, if you must, a mommy tax.

American University professor Joan Williams, in her new book, "Unbending Gender," spotlights the effect of employment practices on women and their families. She argues convincingly that the "ideal worker norm" artificially limits women's options in a way that is discriminatory. Employees who divert from this norm -- by taking parental leave, refusing overtime or working part-time -- suffer reduced hourly wages, benefits and chances for advancement. Nearly 90 percent of women have children. And mothers still perform the bulk of child care and housework. As a result, they become ineligible for jobs with mandatory overtime. They are shut out of promotions. Many employers agree with New York Times columnist Joyce Purnick, who says that it is fair for employers to preclude from top jobs parents who cut back on work for even a short period. It is no wonder that one-third of women who do make it to senior positions never marry, while only 6 to 8 percent of their male counterparts remain single.

In most other industrialized countries, women do not face nearly as stark a choice. Maternity leave is longer and paid. In some countries, child care is viewed as a national responsibility. France, for example, offers free preschool to nearly 100 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 5; classes are taught by teachers whose education is financed by the government. Columbia's Waldfogel says that in other countries (with more fully developed family policies), the overall gender gap in pay is lower than it is in the United States -- as is the gap between the pay of mothers and non-mothers compared with men.

American children are hurt by the current state of affairs. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that for the first time, both parents are working in a majority of married-couple families. If job status and hourly pay were not tied to total number of hours worked, fathers might spend more time with their children and mothers would be better situated to support children in cases of calamity such as divorce or widowhood.

If high-quality care were affordable, millions of preschoolers would not be in unlicensed care, and 21 percent of 6- to 12-year-olds with working mothers would not be alone after school, as the Urban Institute reported recently.

Women face a real choice. They can satisfy themselves with calls for tougher anti-discrimination enforcement. They can believe the conservatives and accept that their status is their own fault. Or they can acknowledge the mommy tax and demand some of the policies that women in other industrialized countries take for granted. If women ask loudly enough, Washington just might be ready listen.

The writer is a former deputy chief of staff at the Department of the Treasury.