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Why Employers Might Be Justified In Paying Mothers Less


Researchers now admit that the biggest pay gap isn’t between men and women, but between mothers and non-mothers. To many, especially liberal feminists, this may be a stunning realization. After decades of propagating the thoroughly debunked statistic that “women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes” and other tropes about pay inequality between men and women, feminists should thoroughly examine this proposition. Ivanka Trump has taken notice, tweeting out a New York Times article discussing the effect, now dubbed the “motherhood penalty.”

Heaping on to well-established complaints about women’s working conditions—that employers have failed to “accommodate” workers trying to maintain “work-life balance,” and that men aren’t sharing household responsibilities equally—this additional grievance concludes employers are unfairly discriminating against mothers by paying them less. That’s at best premature.

Nevertheless, Claire Cain Miller writes for The New York Times that, “Some women work less once they have children, but many don’t, and employers pay them less, too, seemingly because they assume they will be less committed, research shows.” She cites a researcher who says, “The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job,” and Stanford sociology professor, Shelley, J. Correll, who states, “A lot of these effects really are very much due to a cultural bias against mothers.”

Is Perception Alone Everything?

An article discussing additional relevant studies uncovering this assumption, also by Miller, frames the research according to the “motherhood penalty” (which is apparently 4 percent per child on average) and the “fatherhood bonus.” It makes much ado about how employers perceive working mothers, especially low-wage earners, as flaky and “less competent,” but when men become fathers, they not only don’t suffer these perceptions, they actually get a pay bump.

Of course, there are other biases involved, including the bias toward paying people more who work longer, more inflexible hours, as Miller notes in previous work. Still, Miller asserts, “Employers, it seems, have not yet caught up to the fact that women can be both mothers and valuable employees.”

This statement is deeply condescending. The archetype “employer” in the progressive mind is slow and bigoted, a creator of glass ceilings. Of course mothers can be valuable employees, but progressives consider it horrible discrimination for employers to question whether they should automatically assume every mother is likely to perform professional work equal in value to that of their childless counterparts. Miller asserts, “The disparity is not because mothers actually become less productive employees and fathers work harder when they become parents — but because employers expect them to.”

Really? Neither Miller nor Correll, who co-authored a study evaluating whether employers discriminate based on motherhood status, address whether that is a fair expectation, except to acknowledge that worker productivity is extremely difficult to control for in any study. Michelle Budig’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data does address factors such as whether a mother changed jobs in the past year, education, and annual weeks worked, but these are mere approximations of productivity within a statistical model, not based on actual observation. In other words, the limited studies and models that demonstrate a supposed bias against mothers cannot fully disprove the idea that the motherhood penalty just might be justified—that is, employers are getting what they pay for.

Anecdotal evidence from small business owners I know is, sadly, consistent with the idea that mothers tend to be less reliable in low-wage positions, where the perceived “motherhood penalty” is biggest. Being a mother, particularly a primary caregiver, presents more distractions and stress.

Even for more flexible “exempt” positions, when employers offer a working mother a benefit package with paid time off, they expect, justifiably, that she’s going to use more of it, and more quickly, than her childless colleagues will. It’s not just she who might catch the flu, it’s also her child. It’s not just vacation she needs it for, but school meetings and her child’s dentist appointments. Then there’s the physical strain of pregnancy, with morning sickness, sore feet, fatigue, and the rest, and the subsequent time off to recover and care for an infant.

Inflexible Work Isn’t a Good Fit for Moms

Even progressive think tank Third Way’s analysis of Budig’s paper, which they published and Miller draws from, admits it is difficult to combine “intensive family responsibilities with work responsibilities in low-paid jobs…” This is obvious to employers of low-wage workers. Shift work at a fast food restaurant rarely includes paid time off or on-site child care, and getting a co-worker to cover for you last minute isn’t a reliable solution.

Along these lines, the authors write, “When physical care demands for children are greatest during the preschool years, low-earning mothers incur the largest penalties,” and that, “work effort accounts for significantly more of the motherhood penalty at the lowest quantile, indicating women with low-wage jobs are more likely to reduce work hours or experience job turnover to accommodate motherhood.”

They also note that mothers in low-paying positions may simply quit their current job to handle a family crisis, then pick up work again when the crisis is resolved. Low-income women may also have difficulties in finding reliable child care, which leads to even more unreliability in the mother’s own work.

They also found that accounting for 35 separate characteristics reduces the motherhood penalty from six to 3.6 percent per child, and that part-time work accounts for much of the reduction. On the other end of the income spectrum, above the 90th percentile, women actually receive a pay bonus, like men. That would make sense, considering high earners can better afford resources at home such as nannies, lending better stability and therefore probably greater focus at work and perceived reliability from the employer.

People Necessarily Prioritize Their Responsibilities

Even for working mothers who aren’t the primary breadwinners (a third of working mothers) employers and policy experts must acknowledge how people order their work and family lives. They don’t just “balance” the two, they prioritize. If you are the second, supplementary earner, your job just doesn’t carry the urgency or seriousness of that of a primary earner. If you flake out, the budget might be tight for a little while and you won’t get a good reference for the next part-time gig, but your family’s immediate well-being is less threatened.

As with all working mothers, what an employer says he needs can matter less than your kids’ well-being. One can see why employers would think mothers are “less committed” to their work—they are more likely to be committed to their families.

Evaluators in Correll’s study rated mothers’ perceived “competence” as lower than nonmothers as well. But competence can be perceived in many different ways that don’t equate to “stupid.” Other than intelligence, subjects were rated on capability, efficiency, skills, independence, self-confidence, warmth, and sincerity as part of their total competence.

Even with the qualifications of mothers and non-mothers in the study controlled for, might it be possible for past experiences with mothers who have, for instance, been out of the workforce and are a little “rusty” or behind on the latest workplace technology, or younger mothers who are frazzled and less sharp because they haven’t slept through the night in weeks, to influence evaluators’ perception of their competence?

Employers, like mothers, aren’t stupid by virtue of their status. They aren’t “behind the curve” of cultural progress in some way. They realize there are extra considerations when hiring mothers, or even women who might soon become mothers.

Let Employers Evaluate People as Individuals

The one-size-fits-all policy ideas of Ivanka and other progressives for promoting “work-life balance” are bad enough, but the deeper issue must be addressed: progressive feminists want to quash any effort by employers to judge whom they hire. From their worldview, discrimination of any sort is always bad. We’ve even been conditioned to cringe inwardly at the very word.

It stands to reason that riskier hires will be paid less, at least at the beginning.

Feminists such as Miller seem to view the core problem as the freedom of employers to discriminate, neglecting to make the case that mothers haven’t substantially contributed to the perception of lower reliability that suppresses their wages across 90 percent of the income scale. If they thought employers didn’t have a justification for paying mothers less, they’d be arguing for why mothers’ work is more valuable than their compensation reflects instead of simply asserting that “women can be both mothers and valuable employees.”

This leaves real behavior patterns out of the discussion. They’re not indignant because employers have judged wrongly, but rather because they have judged at all.

It is taken as a rule, culturally and politically, that we’re not supposed to judge based on anything other than first-hand evidence with the individual in question. But this perception probably arose based on patterns of observation among employers: real events (such as sudden quits, chronic tardiness, no-shows, and distracted work) that happened with real people, which translate to differing risk profiles for mothers and non-mothers. It stands to reason that riskier hires will be paid less, at least at the beginning.

Of course, it’s alright to actively try to hire more women and mothers, from the feminist perspective. That’s even laudable, even though this is actually just applying discrimination another way, against non-mothers who may apply for an opening. But otherwise, employers are supposed to hire indiscriminately of life circumstances, paying them exactly the same as the employee who doesn’t have a priority exponentially greater (i.e., children) than her workplace demands, which consumes most of her life energy.

Hard-working business people of finite resources, although they may just be a couple bad quarters away from having to take out another loan or shut down a branch or lose their own jobs, must not be allowed the privilege of caution or discretion in managing their teams.

Of Course People’s Life Choices Affect Their Work

It’s not just discrimination feminists decry, of course. Even if they conceded that employers were making rational decisions, the motherhood penalty would still be unacceptable according to social justice doctrine. It’s the systemic injustices, you see, not personal choices, that leave mothers with few resources at home, fewer skills, and fewer opportunities to succeed at work.

Everyone has a hierarchy of needs and no one can completely compartmentalize work and home life.

Whether it’s bigotry or social injustice supposedly at the root of the problem, leftists peddle the same pernicious government interventions. Despite pushing parity between the sexes and between mothers and non-mothers, they would force employers to maintain an imbalance in their workforce.

Certainly, on the domestic side, some women will feel like they have more personal balance; meanwhile, companies might be wobbling financially and institutionally because several workers are on family leave, or they are forced to hire some people with heavy family responsibilities against their better judgment, who then flake and pile extra work onto their coworkers and necessitate hiring and training a replacement. That generates additional stress and resentment, as well as performance deficiencies within the operation as a whole.

Put simply, life circumstances are not just peripherally relevant to one’s job. They directly, continuously impact it. Everyone has a hierarchy of needs and no one can completely compartmentalize work and home life. Feminists like Ivanka hail the “work-life balance” and call for government intervention like subsidized maternity leave because they know that workplace policies and norms can deeply affect employees’ domestic lives, as well as restrict or open work opportunities for mothers.

Life—in this case, motherhood—affects work, yet when employers manage personnel accordingly, they’re are painted as “behind the times” and irrational. Once again, feminism raises a double standard: we’re supposed to acknowledge work affects family life, but refrain from making decisions based on that reality.