I have a young 15-month-old daughter at home and she watches everything I do. You know the drill with kids, monkey see monkey do. So, when a friend sent me this article from The Economist: The Roots of the Gender Pay Gap Lie in Childhood it wasn’t surprising to hear that women often follow in their mothers’ footsteps. If your mother worked while you were a child, you are likely to work when you have children and vice-versa. A study from Princeton University uncovered that the biggest predictor of whether or not your income will suffer from the “child penalty” is whether or not your mother’s did. If you’re unfamiliar with the child penalty, it’s basically this: having children lowers a women’s earnings (but not a man’s).
I don’t think the article offers any groundbreaking insight, and I disagree with it’s assumptions. The article acknowledges that the child penalty is largely due to trade-offs women make, for example: scaling back while children are young, switching to jobs that are more family friendly, and leaving the work-force completely. That is identified as the problem. The root of the problem lies in the example your mother set: did she work? scale back? leave completely? It follows that the article suggests the solution is to set a good example for our daughters and go to work.
Here’s my beef with the economist’s take. First, the article assumes that a pay gap attributable to women splitting time between the office and a family is undesirable. The gender pay gap is a huge injustice when women are paid less because they have two X chromosomes #equalpayforequalwork. However, when the gender pay gap arises when women choose to spend more time raising families than building corporations, is it really a problem? This economist article says yes, but I’m not so sure. When women leave the workforce or scale back, their economic impact shrinks, but there are so many intangible benefits of raising children. There is value in spending time with your little ones and volunteering in your community.
Second, the article goes on to suggest that if women want to close the gender pay gap they need to set an example for their daughters of working – as if it’s as simple as eating your vegetables. I just think this notion is dated. If EQUAL EARNING is the goal, and we want our daughters to see us work, then I think the focus needs to be on institutional changes like year-long maternity leave, affordable childcare, and equal distribution of domestic labor.
I read this article over a week ago and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I felt like I needed to stand up and say, excuse me, but I think you missed the point. The gender pay gap doesn’t seem like a problem to me when compensation goes down as a trade-off of raising a family. I don’t think a mother’s example of scaling back or leaving the workforce is necessarily negative. The work women do as caregivers and volunteers needs more respect.
That being said, as a woman who wants to work, I think we need to have better work options. Meaningful part-time work should be a thing. I would like to contribute my skills and be part of a team, but not at the rate of 40 hours a week, and I know I’m not alone.
I could talk about this for many many words. I tore into the assumptions of the article: mainly that as a society our goal should be to close the gender pay gap at all costs, but I know it has value. It’s good to know that our daughters are likely to follow in our foot steps. When you decide how you will split your time between work and family keep in mind that the impact will reach further than you may have thought.
I want to hear what you think. Do you think we need to close the gender pay gap when adjusted for hours / experience etc? Would we be better off if men’s and women’s income kept pace over a lifetime? What has your experience taught you?