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Motherhood and the Gender Pay Gap

Today, it seems that wealth requires three things: being a woman, being single, and having no children. New research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis points out that in 2019, single women without children had an average fortune of $65,000; their male counterpart has $57,000. For those with children, the situation is reversed. In what some call the “mother’s punishment,” working mothers earn an average of 70 cents for every dollar a working father earns. Single mothers, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the poorest group of all, with a net worth of just $7,000.

The media celebrates the financial rewards of being female, single and childless. “Women who remain single and have no children are getting richer,” says one headline. But this trend has been going on for a long time. Time reported more than a decade ago on the “reverse gender gap”: women under 30 earn more than men of the same age. In big cities, in particular, being young and women reaping financial rewards. Research shows that when women reach their mid-thirties, the point at which they are most likely to start a family, their income begins to fall.

However, recent data on wages and gender should raise serious questions about the established gender-salary gap narrative. For too long, activists have used salary data to portray women as victims of patriarchal work practices and sexist bosses. Every year since 1996, advocates have marked Equal Pay Day to note “how far this year women had to work to get what men earned in the previous year.” Without explanation or context, it can appear as if women are paid less just for being a woman. This is an irresponsible, and inaccurate, message to send to young women who are about to start their working lives. It perpetuates a sense of victimhood that has little to do with reality.

Salary statistics do not show that women are discriminated against just for being a woman. Instead, they point out that, for women more than men, having children requires difficult decisions about when to return to work after giving birth, whether to return to the same role, and whether to continue with full-time employment or start working part-time. . Such decisions are especially complicated for highly educated, career-focused women, who see their salaries and titles as markers of not only professional status but also self-esteem.

For women, twin narratives emerge. The first praises rich, single, childless women; the second expressed anger about the pay gap for older women with children. Sterling Cooper advertising executive at AMC crazy people ask women, “Are you a Jackie or Marilyn?” Today, women allegedly face another limiting choice: to be “boss women” or become victims of the downtrodden, working 42 days each year for free.

We need to be clear about why women earn more than men when they are young but earn less after having children. It seems unlikely that sexist bosses have shifted from punishing women in general to mothers in particular. The important word, of course, is “get”. With new priorities to juggle, moms may decide to work less; they may choose not to apply for promotions that would involve more time away from home, or shortened post-work socializations that help network and facilitate information sharing about future opportunities. Women are not paid less for doing the same work for the same number of hours—instead, they are paid less for working differently. For many women, away from punishment, shifting priorities away from work and caring for their children is a welcome part of motherhood.

In our age of identity, we often assume that disparity equals discrimination. Feminists today struggle with the notion that some women make decisions that prioritize raising a family, not maximizing income. It is the punishment of motherhood, according to some critics, that explains why women delay having children. Loss of pay, coupled with the high cost of raising children, seems to make mothering a barrier for younger women.

But having children always involves sacrifice—whether it be time, money, or personal freedom. Why is the lure of a pay increase seen as sufficient incentive to encourage women to delay motherhood now?

It makes sense to talk about maternal punishment when having children is seen as an individual and not a joint project. When children are considered a family responsibility—perhaps a responsibility that extends beyond mother and father to include grandparents or aunts and uncles—then weighing precisely who produces what becomes less important than the collective resources of the family unit. When motherhood is viewed simply as a lifestyle choice, children become a luxury—maybe nice to have, but not necessary for adulthood or marriage.

When children are treated as such, one person—usually the mother—is assumed to be fully responsible for the child’s welfare. Mothers often get the message that their children’s physical health, emotional state, and academic success depend entirely on how good they are as parents. This is a heavy burden.

Much of our cultural attitude toward children is driven by widespread anti-humanism. Far from being seen as a blessing, babies are potentially racist, polluter, and a drain on limited public resources. Our obsession with maternal punishment suggests an inability to judge value beyond material terms. Anti-human instrumentalism makes us struggle to express the value of education, culture, work, and relationships, as well as through potential economic gain. Having children is seen in terms of financial gains and losses rather than the human bonds formed and love gained.

Attempts to measure motherhood against income also show the conception of life is stuck in the present. Work is often a limited commitment. Employees may leave positions that they feel are no longer useful. The “quiet silence” style suggests that many people don’t think their work is very important. Children, on the other hand, are a lifelong commitment. Having children means having an interest in the future.

When dominant cultural currents encourage us to view the past as shameful and the future as forbidden, the prospect of commitment and responsibility that transcends present closeness seems daunting. Today’s gender-obsessed economists miss this point. In their rush to put a price on everything, they see childlessness as a rational response to paying incentives. But this is reading reality backwards. Since our culture is often at odds with children and families, we insist on measuring the punishments of motherhood from the start.

A society that values ​​children as an integral part of the family and society and sees raising the next generation as a commitment to the future will not see giving up time, money, or freedom as punishment, or even sacrifice, but as an opportunity to transcend individual needs. Our focus on maternal punishment reveals a very different set of priorities.

Photo: hyunjin kang/iStock

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