In six to eight years I will enter the workforce. In ten to twenty years I will, hopefully, have children. And my long-term salary will suffer as a result.
As a sixteen-year-old girl, I know it is a well-repeated fact that white women make 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. What is less talked about is that the bulk of this disparity is not due to discrimination, but a penalty for having children. Men and women start out making the same salary, but once a woman stays home to recover from childbirth, and take care of a newborn, a pay gap emerges. Not only from that brief period at home but afterward the price of parenting is often unfairly balanced on women.
In most respects, leaps and bounds have been made in terms of the treatment of women in the workplace. The #MeToo movement has changed behavior, but what about salary? In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act outlawing paying men and women different amounts for the same work. But why then are we still seeing this massive pay disparity? I believe the bulk of the issue is due to parental leave.
The United States is woefully behind when it comes to parental leave. We are one of eight countries that do not have a law enforcing paid parental leave. No other major country occupies this list with us. And yes, it’s parental leave. Society for Human Resource Management found that 35% of US companies offer paid maternity leave, and only 29% offer paid paternity leave. These numbers are not as disparate as you’d imagine. But how many men actually take the paid parental leave offered? 57% of male respondents, in a survey by Deloitte, said that taking leave would be seen by their peers as a lack of commitment to their jobs. 70% of men take 10 or fewer days off. This is the effect of long-standing generalizations that women should be first committed to the home, and men first committed to their jobs. While a woman often physically needs time off: to recuperate, to breastfeed, etc. It is important for the father to be there too. The increased engagement between a father and their child results in better developmental outcomes. Not only that, but a longer paternity leave that’s actually taken results in higher cognitive test scores for their children according to a study in a study in the Journal of Adolescence. Paternity leave has benefits for the whole family: lessened stress on the mother, and better outcomes for the children. I also don’t mean to be heteronormative. The stigma around paid paternity leave affects families with two dads even more than those with one mom and one dad.
Companies often take into mind that a female hire might leave for several months to have a child. But they do not consider the male hire the same way. Thus, creating discrimination in hiring from the very beginning. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed employment discrimination based on sex, but it didn’t account for these unconscious biases. It is strange that in a country that preaches family values, women take a long-term salary cut for a biological imperative.
An economist at Princeton University, Henrik Kleven, found a dramatic decrease in women’s earnings shortly after the birth of their first child. This results in earning 20% less over the course of their entire careers. This is confirmed by the fact that the largest wage gap exists in the 30s: child-bearing years. Kleven notes that while a lot of other factors contributing to the pay gap are fading, this one has maintained. When men have their first child, their salary isn’t affected at all. If men and women both stay home to take care of their child in those first, crucial months, then the impact of this factor will lessen. Perhaps, equal consideration will be made if one parent needs to stop working to care for the child. Perhaps, the caregiving responsibility long after birth will be more equalized. New research shows if a father takes at least two weeks off, they continue to be more involved in the caretaking from the European Journal of Social Security.
I propose mandatory paid parental leave, such that both men and women are required to take time off to care for a new child: born or adopted. This is meant to be an equalizer: both in hiring and in the long-term effects afterward. Companies will know that men and women will both be taking time off if they have a child. They will both face the same gap in experience, in workplace ascension.
The evolution of women in the workplace has been vast. From the National Women’s Trade Union League formed in 1903 that demanded better conditions and wages to the increased role of women in public service and industry during WWI to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1973 to the #MeToo movement, women have had a long history of advocating for themselves in the workplace. This is why, I believe we need to take the next, logical step forward: the much-needed intermediary step to accomplish equality in long-term salary.
While women have shifted from being economically dependent on men to earn our own living, we are hindered by having children, a task necessary for the survival of humanity. But children are all of our responsibility, and parents need to equally pay the price of parenting.