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If you want to celebrate moms, end the ‘motherhood’ penalty

Forget the Mother’s Day bouquet and coupons for hugs. What income-earning moms want is equal pay and opportunities.

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As I’ve said before, motherhood can be emotionally rewarding, but financially and professionally punitive. Sticky hugs, hand-painted mugs and crayon scrawls are priceless, but so are financial security and a job where you’re treated with respect.

Whether they take time off from their careers or work continuously while raising a family, breadwinner moms often face a documented “motherhood penalty” of lower lifetime earnings and fewer opportunities, largely because of bias and assumptions about their capacity for and dedication to their paid work. And that’s not even mentioning the well-documented imbalance in the division of unpaid labor at home, which, according to a recent study by a British researcher, is tilted more heavily against moms who out-earn their husbands.

On this Mother's Day, the crisis for income-earning moms is hard to miss

The motherhood penalty grew when the coronavirus pandemic yanked away the few means of support that allowed income-earning moms to focus on their work. Since 2020, men have regained the employment losses they suffered during the pandemic, while women’s recovery lags behind; 1 million fewer women are in the workforce now than in 2020, a loss the National Women’s Law Center attributes to caregiving demands that have largely fallen on women. Recovery has been even harder for Black and Latina women and women with disabilities — some of the groups most heavily represented in industries hit hardest by the pandemic.

“If it [the pandemic] did not prompt immediate change in work and care infrastructures, it has demonstrated in devastating clarity what needs to be done,” says Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, an organization dedicated to achieving gender equity.

Unfortunately, despite repeated legislative proposals to strengthen child-care access, paid leave and equal pay protections at the federal level, the political will to enact them into law keeps falling short. Policies like these need a groundswell of support from employers and employees to boost them to the point where making them the law of the land becomes a no-brainer, the way industry changes and labor advocacy eventually led to the 40-hour workweek.

Video: The five-day workweek was made up. What if we changed it?

I asked Farrell what employers and employees can do now to help combat the pay gap and aid job recovery for income-earning moms.

Farrell says employers should conduct rigorous and regular analyses of pay scales to get a sense of how wages in their company are distributed and to uncover patterns that may indicate bias. “I have never met an employer who believes it is paying less based on race, sex or other factors until they look at their numbers,” Farrell notes.

Farrell also recommends that employers adopt a culture of pay transparency, so workers have the data they need to negotiate. The states of Washington and Colorado require employers to post salary scales in job listings, and a similar law is being debated in New York City.

Farrell also recommends that employers avoid setting compensation based on earning history, a practice outlawed in an increasing number of states. Instead of looking at what a mother was making before she took time off to raise a baby or coach her kids through online school, employers should look at her skill set, the requirements of the job, and the range of what they are willing to pay for that job.

Farrell also outlined ways income-earning moms can add their voices to the call for pay equity.

In the United States now, it’s a workers’ market, says Farrell: “Even if you don’t want to leave [your job], this is the time to assess what’s happening with the market” in terms of paid leave, pay scales and flexibility. Glassdoor can provide this information, as can your own network. Knowing how your employer’s offerings stack up against competitors’ is vital in compensation discussions and in helping you calculate whether you’re getting what you deserve, financially and otherwise.

It’s also helpful to talk about pay with colleagues. “This is where a lot of pay discrimination tends to be discovered,” said Farrell. You can start by sharing your pay rate and asking if that sounds in line with what others in similar positions, with equivalent experience, are making. While your employer might prefer that you not discuss numbers with your colleagues, federal law generally protects your right to do so.

Finally, Farrell recommends speaking up on workplace issues outside the workplace. From local to national elections, voters should make clear to political candidates that workplace fairness, and policies to support and enforce it, matters to them.

These single women say they face a workplace penalty, too

By now, you’ve probably realized this advice isn’t limited to moms at all. It applies to income-earning dads who, in exchange for being paid well, are subtly discouraged from participating fully in family life. It applies to workers without children who are expected to make work their sole priority — or to accept less pay because they have “only” themselves to support. It’s for anyone who suspects they’re being underpaid for reasons having nothing to do with performance. Inequity is a blade that cuts in all directions.

Pro tip: Give Mom a real break: LinkedIn’s new “career break” feature is helping normalize and de-stigmatize gaps in work history by allowing job seekers space in their profiles to note time off for family, health issues, career transitions and other life events and pursuits.