Parenting and the Pay Gap

Parenting and the Pay Gap

While the gender wage gap is much narrower today than it was half a century ago, women’s progress in closing that gap has slowed in recent years. FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman explains why:

Hourly pay has risen more than twice as fast over the past three decades for men working long hours, as employers increasingly reward employees willing to work extra hours with raises or promotions. (The pattern crosses educational and industry lines, and holds when excluding overtime pay.) Notice that I said “men.” Men make up a bit more than half the full-time workforce, but they account for more than 70 percent of those working 50 hours a week or more. So as wage gains have gone disproportionately to people working long hours, they have also gone disproportionately to men, widening the earnings divide between men and women overall. …

The rapid rise in pay for people working long hours has played a major role in the persistence of the overall gender wage gap, particularly for parents; new research in the Russell Sage Foundation volume estimates that the wage gap between mothers and fathers would be 15 percent smaller if the extra-hours increase hadn’t occurred. But that premium itself isn’t the result of discrimination, explicit or implicit; women who work long hours have seen even faster gains than men (although they still earn less on average).

Rather, the trend contributes to the wage gap because men are so much more likely than women to work those long hours. That, in turn, is the result of a confluence of factors that are deeply embedded in the American economy and society: Women, on average, spend much more time than men on housework, while men — especially a certain category of highly educated, elite men — are expected to work as much as possible.

Arguably, the cultural norm of mothers as primary caregivers is holding women back from closing the wage gap in more ways than just hindering them from working longer hours.

The ideal career trajectory is positively linear: The longer you work in an industry the more money you will make. But women who choose to have families often aren’t able to follow that linear trend. They take maternity leave, causing a pause along what could have been an upward linear trajectory. This “motherhood penalty” is increasingly seen as a key factor in the pay gap.

This presents an interesting conundrum for advocates of more generous maternity leave policies: If mothers start taking longer leaves when they have kids, won’t the wage gap also increase? That effect has been observed in Scandinavian countries, where employers are required to give new mothers a lot of time off, but these long leaves have the hidden downside of disrupting their career paths. If significant periods away from the workplace hurt earnings in the long run, it follows logically that longer parental leaves might slow down the rate at which mothers advance in their careers.

That’s why advocates of gender equality in the workplace are also putting pressure on employers to introduce or expand paternity leave. If new fathers begin taking significant time away from work as well as new mothers, that could help close the gap, perhaps by slowing down men’s career trajectories, but more likely by helping dispel the stigma that surrounds maternity leave and contributes to holding mothers back in their careers.

Paternity leave is gradually becoming more mainstream as fathers take on a more active role in their children’s upbringing, but women still take on the lion’s share of those responsibilities. Until that gap is closed, I think it might be challenging to expand parental leave for mothers and close the gender pay gap at the same time.