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The Wage Gap Between Moms, Other Working Women


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

This week, we want to talk about the wage gap. Now, you've probably heard about the persistent wage gap between men and women. The most recent census data shows that, on average, women make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes and that gap has closed in recent decades, but it still persists.

But now, researchers have also found a wage gap between moms and other working women. Women who have children now earn 7 to 14 percent less than women who do not have children. That's according to economist Kate Krause of the University of New Mexico, and she identifies a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon and we want to hear her perspective on why this is.

But we also want to figure out if there is something that women who are mothers or want to be mothers can do about this if they want to. So to have that conversation, I'm joined now by Kate Krause. She's a professor of economics at the University of New Mexico, as we said. She's co-author of the research we just mentioned. She's also the mother of two daughters.

Dina Bakst is co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance. That's an organization that advocates for working families. She's the mom of three daughters.

Also with us, Dawn Porter. She's a former television executive and she's founder of Trilogy Films and she has two sons.

Welcome, ladies, moms. Thank you all so much for joining us.

KATE KRAUSE: Thank you for having me.

DINA BAKST: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Professor Krause, I'm going to start with you. Now, you researched this gap between mothers and other working women and, you know, every mother works. We get that. But we're talking about women who...

KRAUSE: Right.

MARTIN: ...earn a wage. And I'd like to ask you. Now, this is the proverbial sort of chicken and egg question that everybody asks here. Is this a result of discrimination, that women with children are sort of viewed in a different light, given less favorable assignments, just for whatever reason that employers say, well, you're just not getting that check. Or is it a self-selection process that, once women have children or women who want to have children self-select and put themselves into less remunerative jobs? So which is it?

KRAUSE: So that's a great question. It sounds like you might have been a research assistant on this project. I do want to say this is not at all a new phenomenon or a new finding. We followed in the footsteps of many people who have investigated differential wages by a lot of different characteristics. Right? We think about wage gaps between men and women, between - you know, across race and ethnicity.

But the mom gap was a particularly troubling thing. My co-authors and I do what we call me-search. We research things about ourselves and we all had children, so we researched that. And, actually, the gap that you mentioned is an aggregate gap.

At the beginning of the show, you gave quite large numbers, like in the teens, but if you drill down and control for factors that can help to explain the things that you were talking about; selection into different careers. You could reduce - what we like to do, as economists say I can explain some of that gap by voluntary steps that women might take. I might take a less demanding job if it gives me more time with my children in exchange for a lower wage. Or, in anticipation of having children, I might get less college education because why get it if I'm going to stay home with the kids?

So we have these sort of explanations that on the surface make a lot of sense for differential wages.

MARTIN: OK. So help me out here. Which is it? Is it all of the above? Is it all those things?

KRAUSE: It's all of the above.

MARTIN: It's all of those things. OK.


KRAUSE: All of the above and then some.

MARTIN: And then some. OK.

KRAUSE: So if you look at just differences in education and differences in occupation - but I'm going to have to circle back to that. Let's just say differences in education and other sort of neutral kind of decisions you might make. That explains about half the gap.

If you look at timing of return - did I come back right away or did I wait until my kids were in school? That explains a big part of the gap. Right? I've lost some experience. I've lost some momentum, maybe.

But if I can think about all of those things and control for them in a statistical way and I still see a gap, then I'm going to be really nervous. Then I'm going to say, boy, I can't explain that with all these things. A mom who does everything exactly the same as someone who hasn't had children - if there's still a gap, how do I explain that? And that, to an economist, is the fun of the research.


KRAUSE: Is discovering things I can't explain.

MARTIN: OK. So, Dina, you're an attorney and you were formerly with the now Legal Defense and Education Fund - now it's Legal Momentum. So as I understand it, you believe that a lot of it's discrimination.

BAKST: Certainly, a large part of it. You know, it's a loaded question and there are other factors that people may point to, but the reality is is that discrimination is still very much at play in the workplace, and A Better Balance runs a free legal clinic, and we see it really firsthand how...

MARTIN: Yeah, tell me how it works. That's kind of the thing I'm interested in, how it works because, you know, it used to be that the newspaper would say - just like it would say, you know, these are jobs for white people and nobody else need apply, jobs also used to say these are jobs for men or for women. That's not permitted anymore. So what do - so how do you think it works? Do you think it's kind of more of an unconscious response to women becoming mothers that employers say oh, you just can't handle this assignment? Or oh, what? What do you think it is?

BAKST: Well, there's still blatant discrimination against new mothers out there. I mean you would be shocked what we hear when pregnant women announce their pregnancies and are told or what are we going to do about that? I mean that is still out there alive and well. But, of course, there's much more subtle stereotyping about new mother's competence and commitment that's going on in the workplace. You know, we often see women returning from maternity leave who are given less work or dead end assignments. And this type of discrimination really drags down wages for women because they get off track, and even worse off and pushed out of the workforce.

And then we also hear about women who work part-time who really face a documented wage and benefit penalty. The penalties associated with part-time work in the U.S. are actually seven times higher as they are in Sweden and the UK, and this affects workers across the economic spectrum, but we see low-wage workers especially hard hit with little if no benefits and with pretty much no with documented wage penalties.

MARTIN: Dawn Porter, let's turn to you, that you are also an attorney, but you had a long career in television. You worked on things like standards and practices, for example, you know, making sure that, you know, requirements that content didn't, you know, cross certain sort of boundaries and so forth like that. You know, television is notorious for demanding hours and work assignments. And I just wanted to ask how your - and I should mention, we were former colleagues at the same network - so I'd like to ask, you know, what is your take on this research? Did you feel that the way you were treated in the workplace or in different places changed after you became a mother?

DAWN PORTER: Well, I definitely think, you know, one of the things that we should talk about is the idea of role models in the workplace. And as we have fewer women with children in the workplace, young women in particular have fewer women to look to to even know what to ask for. So in one sense I was extremely fortunate. I had a really supportive boss who helped me figure out how to have a job share. On the other hand, there's only so much she could do, right? If you're in a demanding career the reality is to get ahead, to get those stretch assignments. There is a perception that a person who has children or person who wants to leave - goodness forbid you want to leave the office at five o'clock - which we never did, we never left at five o'clock, but if you wanted to leave at five you're viewed as less committed. And I think that is, you know, a real drag and something that hurts particularly new mothers who are trying to figure out how to balance motherhood with their desire to be outstanding workers.

MARTIN: We're talking about the wage gap between mothers and other women in the paid workforce. Research shows that moms make less than women without children and we're talking about why that might be. And now I'd like to turn to other things that people, mothers, women who want to be mothers, can do about this. And I'm joined by former television executive Dawn Porter. She is also an attorney and she's now started her own business. Dina Bakst is with the organization A Better Balance. And Kate Krause is an economics professor at the University of New Mexico, who's researched this question.

So Dawn, I think - I'm sorry, look, you've raised a sensitive question but we need to address it. What about the whole, you know, commitment issue? I'll just put myself into it. I'll just thank Jacki Lyden for sitting in for me yesterday. I had a medical issue involving one of my children and that had to be attended to urgently. Now, could I have asked the babysitter to take her? I could have. I didn't, I felt I'm her mother. I need to be there. You can see a scenario where somebody might say you're just not as committed as a male host who would say delegate that task to somebody else.

Now Kate, I'm going to go to you on this because you make the argument that the same behavior is viewed differently when men and women engage in it. Can you pick up on that point?

KRAUSE: Yeah. Actually that's a really good point. It's not something that was part of our like really formal research agenda, but it was certainly something that we saw. So like your other guests, I also practiced law too. I quit when I had kids because I couldn't commit to that. So I'm sort of guilty of, you know, being that stereotype. Our department in economics moved from a very male dominated department when I first joined it to one with a lot of other moms. But it's completely different when a mom says I've got to go coach soccer. That's oh, yeah, right. And if the dad says I have to go coach soccer, it's oh, wow, you're a great dad. And I think that it's because it's one thing is really valued, like you're breaking this norm and being this great dad and maybe it's the sort of cultural norm expectations clash that catches women in this double bind where they want to show commitment and yet - show commitment to work, but also, of course, to your family. I mean that's clearly important.

MARTIN: Well, Dawn, I don't know. What you think about that, because you'll remember that Ted Koppel, you know, one of my favorite anchors of all time, of course, was a colleague of mine at "Nightline," he was the anchor of the program where I worked at there, wrote about in his autobiography or his memoir about how when he arranged his schedule to anchor on the weekends so that his wife could go to law school he felt he was penalized for it or he was looked down upon as not being, you know, a macho tough guy, when here is a guy who was a famous war correspondent before he took that job. So Dawn, I mean Dawn, what's your sense of that?

PORTER: Well...

MARTIN: Is that a male-female piece or is it a caregiver piece - that caregivers are penalized in the workplace?

PORTER: You know, I think we're seeing more and more that men and women would like more family-friendly, child-friendly workplace situations. And I think what's happened though, is we have to figure out how to change the dialogue around that. I became no less committed to my job because I had something that I was equally committed to, which were my children. And, you know, but I do think there's a big difference between, you know, if you look at the time when young women are having children, it is a very sensitive time in their careers. It is when they're in their late 20s, 30s, that's the time when the employers are really looking to who are our superstars, right? Who are we going to bet the farm on? And if you look like you have a commitment to anything other than getting ahead in getting - making your workplace number one, you know, there - I think there often is some hesitancy in giving you the plum assignments and that affects women more I think than it does affect men.

MARTIN: So what should be done about this? What can people do about this? Let's fix this thing right now.


MARTIN: And I do want to mention that Working Mother magazine wrote about this. And Kate, they also talked about some of your research too. And one of the things that they talked about was prove yourself first. Try to make yourself invaluable before you have children. Come back when you're ready they say, because there's no magic time. You're going to take the hit so just get to hit over with. And they also say certain professions penalize women a lot and others are relatively forgiving. For example, for some reason law, women with MBAs saw their pay drop dramatically. But by contrast, women doctors across many specialties did not take as large of a hit, which is interesting.

So Dina, what's your take on this based on all these things that you've seen in the real world and the workforce? Are there things that women can do to minimize this?

BAKST: Well, there are certainly individual steps that people can take. But I think we need to look more broadly here and look about - look what our public policies can do to catch up with the realities of the modern workforce. I think first of all we need to head-on address unfair pay in the workplace and strengthen our equal pay laws. We - there's still a blanket of secrecy around pay in this country and workers are penalized for sharing salary information. And, you know, we can't enforce our equal pay laws in a vacuum, so that's critically important that we open up and people can understand if they're being paid fairly or not.

Second of all, I think we need to focus on making supportive work-family policies a priority because those are key to keeping women on track and that will play a role in helping to narrow the wage gap. And a recent study out of Rutgers, which was commissioned by the National Partnership for Women and Families, shows that paid family leave increases wages for women and increases their attachment to the labor force. And we need to really focus on policies and not just on individual, you know, which careers individual women can choose, and we need to vigorously combat the type of discrimination I was talking about earlier and get away from this choice conversation because really, we have structural problems in our workplace.

Joan Williams calls it the ideal worker model and it gives a leg up to workers with no family commitments and anyone who deviates from this model pays a hefty price. And, you know, this shouldn't be the case and frankly, really, you know, high income workers may have a choice to go to their kids soccer game, I mean we really need to frame this and also see how this affects middle and lower wage workers who don't have this choice or can't delegate it and they take a day off to care for their sick child and they lose their jobs.

MARTIN: Sure. We've talked a lot about this and even let's say let's talk about, you know, police work, for example, where somebody, the police chief, you know, calls a crime emergency and cancels all leave. Well, OK, people think prepaid vacation to Hawaii, but what if you had taken time off or had planned to take time off to go to parent/teacher conferences or other really important, you know, parenting obligations? What do you do then when you're going on a 12-hour shift?

So Dawn, we only have a minute left. I'm going to give you the final word, because your TV experience will help you bring it home. Briefly, what - anything you can do?

PORTER: You know, I think it's really important for the women to be talking to each other and to remember that this phase of your career is short, it's temporary. It's really a few years when, you know, the balance, the work-life balance is really the toughest. And once you are a supervisor level you do get more flexibility. So if you're in a career that you want to stay in, you know, communicate with your supervisors, communicate with your co-workers, try and offer proactive situations and communicate that you're trying to stay in this job, that you care about this job, you know, just as much and I think that's OK to say, as you do about your family responsibilities. So, you know, don't self-select yourself out without making a real run for it if it's the job you want to stay in.

MARTIN: Dawn Porter is a former television executive and an attorney. She's founder of Trilogy Films. She was with us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Also with us, Dina Bakst, she's co-founder and co-president of an organization called "A Better Balance." She's also an attorney. She was with us from NPR New York. Kate Krause is a professor of economics at the University of New Mexico. She's also an attorney. I don't know how we wound up with three attorneys in this conversation. She was with us from member station KUNM, on that school's campus.

Ladies, thank you all so much.

PORTER: Thank you.

BAKST: Thanks for having this conversation.

KRAUSE: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.