We hear a lot about the wage gap between men and women in the workplace, but the wage gap between mothers and fathers is even wider. Women make just over 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, but if we look at the paychecks of parents only, the gulf widens.
According to the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) analysis of U.S, Census data, mothers only make about 71 cents to a dad's dollar, resulting in a loss of $16,000 in earnings annually.
This, despite the fact that millennial women are getting college degrees at higher rates than men, proving that we can't educate ourselves out of the motherhood penalty.
"Families depend on women's incomes, yet mothers, regardless of their education level, their age, where they live, or their occupation, are paid less than fathers. When mothers are shortchanged, children suffer and poverty rises. Families are counting on us to close the maternal wage gap," says Emily Martin, NWLC General Counsel and Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice.
The COVID-19 has illuminated just how big of a problem discrimination against mothers can be.
This mom says she was fired because her kids were heard on business calls
Earlier this summer California mom blogger Dris Wallace, the mom behind Modern Cali Mom, went viral for saying she was fired because her boss could hear her two children on work calls as she worked from home during the pandemic.
Wallace has since retained a lawyer, Daphne Delvaux, who goes by @themamattorney on Instagram and issued a statement on the platform.
"Like you, I am outraged by my client @moderncalimom's experience. She was terminated for reporting discrimination," Delvaux writes.
Like many mothers, Wallace has been working from home without childcare since the pandemic began.
"The last 3 months I have worked around the clock from home while watching my two toddlers," the mom of two explained in her viral post in June.
She continued: "I have met all the deadlines they have asked me for, even the unrealistic ones. The situation that I had endured the last 3 months is beyond stressful. How does a company that says that they understand and will work around the schedule of parents do the complete opposite with their actions? I'm devastated. I have poured hours, tears, sweats, delayed giving my child a snack when he wanted one because my boss needed me to do something right away."
That's why her lawyer is stepping in and taking legal action. Delvaux just announced she has filed a case in San Diego Superior Court, claiming gender discrimination, retaliation, gender harassment, failure to prevent discrimination, negligent supervision, wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
According to Delvaux, "Motherhood is a "gender subgroup" and employers may not discriminate against mothers." She also explains that "the company should have corrected and remedied the discrimination [and] should have trained the manager" and that the termination was illegal.
Unfortunately, what Wallace experienced is sadly common.
As the Washington Post reports, when single mom Stephanie Jones asked her bosses if she could have flex time to help deal with not having school of childcare for her 11-year-old during the pandemic, she was told to take leave or resign and was eventually fired. She's suing.
Many moms (and dads!) now have a child appearing in the background of video calls or popping into the office to ask for a snack in the middle of an important project. It's happening. And until we get childcare back, we can't help it and we can't all just resign or take all our leave. The laws recognize this, and employers need to, too.
"As school closures continue, the fragile safety net people have cobbled together will start to fray," lawyer Alexis Ronickher, a partner at the firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, told the Washington Post. "My expectation is we'll start to see a lot more problems for caregivers and very much expect them to have a disproportionate effect on women."
This was a problem before the pandemic and working from home is putting a magnifying glass over it.
As Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Making Motherhood Work recently told Marketplace, "Women tend to be penalized for any signal that they are caregivers in the workplace, whereas men tend to receive benefits," she said.
What we're seeing during the pandemic, through stories like the one Dris shared, is just how true (and how damaging) that is.
Why the motherhood penalty (and fatherhood bonus) exist
The gap in the pay between mothers and fathers is due to how parents are perceived in our culture. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Sociology found working mothers are penalized in the form of "lower perceived competence and commitment, higher professional expectations, lower likelihood of hiring and promotion, and lower recommended salaries."
But becoming a dad doesn't put dads at a disadvantage, or make them appear less committed. It actually often results in a so-called "fatherhood bonus." A recent study published in the journal Work, Employment and Society, found having kids often results in men earning more, even when they aren't particularly hard workers.
According to the study's lead author, Sylvia Fuller, this suggests that our preconceived cultural ideas about fatherhood are impacting employers thinking and parents' paychecks. "They think dads are working hard, they have positive stereotypes about them, or maybe they just think, you know, dads deserve more because they're thinking of their family responsibilities," Fuller told Global News.
Moms are still the default parent
While parenthood dulls a woman's CV, it gives fathers' a shine because mothers are still seen as the default parent in our culture. Not only do men make more after becoming dads, but researchers have also found that men's leisure time increased after parenthood, while mothers see their workload at home increase. And because the wider society knows that women carry heavier loads at home and spend more work more hours doing unpaid labor, employers see us as distracted by our other responsibilities.
Basically, employers see fathers as people who have big-picture responsibilities to their families and a lot of support in raising their kids. They see moms as the managers of the small stuff and know that many of us don't have a lot of support in managing that load.
Closing the gap by changing the way we view fathers
We can't close this gap by only changing the way employers think about mothers. We also have to change the way our society thinks about dads. Today's dads want to be more involved in their children's lives and have pretty egalitarian beliefs about dividing household responsibilities between partners, but many find they can't live up to those beliefs. Most fathers in America can't take paternity leave and those that have the option of doing so only take about a third of what is available for fear of being seen as uncommitted.
"Fathers repeatedly tell researchers they want to be more involved parents, yet public policy and social institutions often prevent them from being the dads they want to be – hurting moms, dads and children alike," writes Kevin Shafer, an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.
An investment needs to be made
That extra $16,000 that mothers are missing isn't going to come without investment from society. The United States is the only member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) without paid parental leave and also spends less on early childhood education than most other developed countries.
Investing in paid family leave and affordable, quality childcare would level the playing field for mothers, but that's just the first part of change that needs to happen. We need employers and lawmakers to implement parental leave policies, but we also need our peers to embrace and encourage their use for all parents.
When fathers are expected and respected as caregivers, mothers are no longer seen as the default parent at home or at work. When the parenting responsibilities equalize, so will the paychecks.
Pay inequality happens all over the world, but the country that has come the closest to closing the gap, Iceland, the majority of fathers take parental leave. That isn't a coincidence, it's a recipe for change.
Post-pandemic America needs to look different in so many ways, and this is one of them.
[A version of this post was originally published March 25, 2019. It has been updated.]