The wage gap numbers for 2015 are in: overall, women working full time, year round in the United States earned a paltry 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The wage gap for many women of color is even larger—in 2015, for example, African American women made 63 cents and Latina women made 54 cents for every dollar made by a white, non-Hispanic man. And these unfair numbers haven’t budged in a decade.
I hope you’re asking yourself: It’s 2016–what the heck is going on here?!
There are several, unfortunate dynamics contributing to the wage gap. Outright discriminatory decisions to pay women less for the same job; subconscious bias and sex stereotypes that lead employers to value women’s work less; the segregation of women into lower-paying jobs and exclusion from higher-paying, non-traditional jobs.
And Then There Is the Impact of Caregiving…
Women’s caregiving work is a key dynamic that contributes to the gender wage gap and that too many have pointed to as evidence that the wage gap stems from women’s choices, not discrimination. The argument goes: women don’t earn as much as their male counterparts because they choose to take time off work or to work part-time to care for children, or they choose to be more focused on their kids and less committed to their careers.
Workplace Policies and Practices Penalize Women for Taking Time to Care
Arguing that “women’s choices” explain the wage gap overlooks a lot of the ways these choices are constrained. By and large, the American workplace remains structured around outdated assumptions that men are the primary breadwinners and that they have wives who stay home and care for children. As a result, few employees—especially workers in low-wage jobs, 2/3 of whom are women—have access to affordable child care, paid sick leave, or paid family and medical leave. Or women face unpredictable and inflexible work schedules that make staying employed and meeting caregiving responsibilities nearly impossible. Likewise, the way many workplaces value employee worth—so often based on the number of hours put in at work instead of production or performance—penalizes women who have caregiving responsibilities. These outdated workplace structures mean that many women with caregiving responsibilities are losing wages because they are forced out of the workplace, forced to cut back on their hours, forced to take leave without pay, or because their work is undervalued.
Caring for children or other family members shouldn’t necessarily mean a pay cut—but too often it still does.
Discrimination Against Caregivers is a Real—and Persistent—Problem
And then there is the persistent discrimination that women with caregiving responsibilities—and mothers in particular—face in the workplace, which leads to lower wages.
Working mothers still face discrimination based on gender stereotypes about mothers’ competence and commitment at work. A 2007 study found, for example, that when comparing equally qualified women candidates, women who were mothers were recommended for significantly lower starting salaries, perceived as less competent, and less likely to be recommended for hire than non-mothers. The effects for fathers in the study were just the opposite—fathers were actually recommended for significantly higher pay and were perceived as more committed to their jobs than non-fathers.
Given all that, it is not surprising that, in 2014, mothers who worked full time, year round typically made only 73 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. (We won’t know for a few more months whether the wage gap for mothers changed in 2015). Caregiver discrimination disproportionately affects women, and in particular women of color, who are more likely to be employed while raising young children or caring for other individuals, and more likely to be the sole source of income for their families.
This discriminatory dynamic is why states have begun considering—and in Maryland’s case, passing—anti-“mommy tracking” provisions in their equal pay bills to curtail employers from passing women over for promotion opportunities based on discriminatory stereotypes about their commitment to their jobs. Likewise, six states—including Delaware just this year—have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination based on family caregiving responsibilities to some degree.
So, yes, caregiving is one driver of unequal pay for women. And that’s a reason for mobilizing to change our workplace policies and nondiscrimination laws so that caring doesn’t mean sharing in the wage gap.