Writing Off the Mommy Tax


For the first time in history, women are attending college in higher numbers than men. At first blush, this seems rather encouraging, a sign that women are on their way to achieving equal economic and social status — and we may well be (it’s arguably a matter of perspective, as the statistics can seem dismal or hopeful depending on how one looks at it). But these strides in education, while laudable in their own right, are unfortunately not translating into greater political, economic, or structural power for women. As of 2018, women make up only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs, roughly a quarter of U.S. members of Congress (even after the 2018 midterm elections), and not quite a third of university presidents.

In terms of pay, a significant wage gap still exists (albeit one that has narrowed haltingly since the 1980s) between men and women. Women make roughly 77 cents to every dollar a man does, though race and ethnicity play a role as well, with African-American women and Hispanic women earning less on average than white women. Over time, this imbalance has an enormous impact, costing women an estimated $400,000 in lifetime earnings. Some critics believe that these pay disparities are merely a reflection of occupational segregation: generally, men tend to go into higher paying fields like engineering, while women go into lower-paying fields like education. This may be true, but women still make less than men within the same field doing the same job. Even in partnerships where the woman is more highly educated, the man still tends to earn more. These issues are amplified if/when a woman has children.

The wage gap between childless women and men is relatively small (around 90 cents to the dollar), but women take a hit upon having their first child with the gap widening to 16 percent. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “mommy tax.” The lack of guaranteed paid maternity leave in the U.S. further compounds the economic challenges that working mothers already face. New parents are guaranteed 12 weeks off work following childbirth or adoption under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but the law does not guarantee pay or even apply to all people (for example, those working at small companies with fewer than 50 employees). The FMLA is better than nothing (a low bar indeed), but the reality is a lot of women just can’t afford to take too much time off. Corporations with progressive, family-friendly policies frequently make headlines, which often leads us to believe that the maternity-leave situation in the U.S. is much better than it truly is. The reality is that only 14% of workers have access to paid maternity leave.

The struggle to achieve a sustainable work/life balance is definitely not unique to women (many fathers want or need to equitably partake in parenting duties). However, women still take on more than their fair share of housework and provide the majority of childcare, despite being just as likely to work outside the home. Thus, it may not be surprising that 43% of women choose to leave the workplace after becoming a mother. This in part explains the lack of women in positions of leadership, that infamous glass ceiling which prevents women and minorities from moving up the ladder, due in part to women removing themselves from the workplace (a completely understandable decision, given the more-often-than-not rigid demands of corporate America).  Women effectively take themselves out of the running for opportunities for career advancement. Women who eventually return to the workforce then face yet another set of challenges. Finding a job after a significant gap in one’s work history (even if that gap was spent raising the next generation of humans) can be difficult and accepting a new job after this period often involves a decrease from one’s previous salary.

Brie McGhee is an undergraduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying Psychology and Public Policy. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she moved to North Carolina during high school and started college at Wake Tech Community College, where she earned her A.A.S. degree in Networking Technologies. Brie is passionate about advancing women in the public spheres of business, government, and other positions of leadership and plans to continue her education in law school. Outside of classes, she enjoys running, being in nature, reading, and going to concerts.  Brie is Women AdvaNCe’s 2019 Moxie Intern.

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