Keep Marching: We Can Close the Wage Gap for Working Moms

Keep Marching, by life-long activist and MomsRising Executive Director Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, is a beginner’s guide to women’s activism centered around the ways gender, race and class intersect and the importance of an intersectional fight for economic justice. The following is an exclusive excerpt of the book for Ms. readers published to mark Moms Equal Pay Day—the day mothers work until each year to make us much as fathers did by the end of the year before.

For the 81 percent of women who become mothers, the wage gap is even bigger—and it’s bigger still for moms of color, queer moms and single moms. The truth is that right now, in the United States of America, being a mom is a greater predictor of wage and hiring discrimination than being a woman. Our country, which claims to love, adore and respect motherhood, pays moms just 71 cents to every dollar that dads earn.

To get a real picture of what’s going on, here are the specific numbers: Asian American and Pacific Islander mothers are paid 85 cents; white, non-Hispanic mothers are paid 69 cents; Black mothers are paid 51 cents; Native American mothers are paid 49 cents and Latina mothers are paid just 46 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers. Furthermore, mothers in low-wage jobs are paid just 66 cents for every dollar paid to fathers in low-wage jobs.

Felicia experienced blatant wage discrimination while working at a technical support center for a large retail corporation. She was hired to work the exact same job as her brother-in-law, and after talking to him discovered that she was being paid about $4 an hour less to do the exact same job. She went on to find out that all of the men at work, working the same job, with the same amount of experience, were making $4 an hour more than her. And, as it turns out, all the women were making the lower wage.

Moms in general—whether minimum wage earners or beyond— earn just 71 cents to every dollar that dads earn, but the discrimination in pay is compounded for single moms and their children. Paid just 55 cents for every dollar paid to all fathers, single mothers are among those who face the worst wage discrimination in our nation.

When Tara was growing up, her family was barely able to get by. Tara and her mom (who was single) lived with Tara’s grandmother, which was the only way that her mom would have enough money to get gas to go back and forth from work and to purchase essentials. After a while, Tara and her mom moved into a place with her uncle. If it was not for her grandma and her uncle, they would have had a hard time keeping a roof over their heads and getting food to eat. The wage discrimination that single moms like Tara’s face is impacting a tremendous and growing number of women and children. A study from Johns Hopkins University found that 57 percent of babies born to millennials were not born within a marriage. Technically these are “single mothers” by many people’s definition, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a partner.

Family structure and our culture is changing. Currently, 69 percent of American children live with two parents, down from 88 percent in 1960, and 23 percent live with a single mother, up from eight percent in 1960. It’s important to note that even though the number of children who live with single mothers has nearly tripled since 1960, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a same-sex partner involved, and it also doesn’t mean that dads or other partners aren’t involved. For instance, while Black families have some of the lowest marriage rates in our nation, studies show that Black fathers, regardless of marital and cohabitation status, are the most involved with their children’s daily lives of any group of fathers in our nation.

The numbers demonstrate that family structure and the story of families has changed, but our workplace structures and public policy are outdated. Our economy and our families are both negatively affected by the fact that many of our key public policies have fallen behind the realities that numerous women and families in America are living in right now. It’s on all of us to catch up. Mia Birdsong, co-director of Family Story, is one of the few people focused on the incredibly important work of combating the racism, sexism, and classism that’s permeated much of our culture’s view of families. Among other things, Birdsong and her organization are hard at work updating our country’s outdated picture of the typical family in America.

Birdsong was inspired to help launch Family Story because she noticed that there is greater system-wide support for “nuclear” families than other family structures. In other words, our national policies, workplaces and culture often discriminate against families that don’t match a 1950s imaginary vision of one mom, one dad and two kids—even though that family structure is becoming the exception, not the rule. The change Birdsong wants to see is an end to a hierarchy of family structures so all types of families are able to access the resources they need without prejudice regardless of gender roles, race and class. I couldn’t agree more. It’s long past time to update outdated ideas about families in our nation.

Lani, a working mom, shared that the wage gap makes it nearly impossible for her or her wife to stay home with their children—despite having “good” jobs as attorneys. Both moms went back to work when their baby was only three months old. It was just basic math. “When my wife and I sat down and figured out how much we each made and the cost of childcare,” Lani says, “we found that between rental prices in our region and student loans, there was no way for either of us to be out of the labor force.” Lani and her wife ended up delaying plans to have a second child because childcare prices are so high. There’s no way they could afford to have two children in childcare, so they have to wait. At the same time, the clock is ticking: They can’t wait too long and risk fertility issues.

Two moms face a double-wage-hit whammy, but two dads get a double boost, and that has an impact on the options open to them as parents. The New York Times reported that couples with two dads are the most likely to have a stay-at-home parent—a heterosexual couple is the next most likely, and two moms are the least likely even if they want to because it’s often simply unaffordable.

Clearly, sexuality also needs to be front and center in any discussion of the wage gap as it intersects and adds up to be a double or triple whammy on the pocketbook. In our nation, 4.2 percent of people between the ages of eighteen and forty-four identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, with 62 percent of that cohort being female. Further data find that 71 percent of all those who identify as bisexual are female, and 49 percent of all those who identify as lesbian or gay are female. In addition, a recent study found that 1.4 million individuals identify as transgender.

Claudia Goldin, a labor economist at Harvard University, has found in studying age, race, work hours and education that people working in the exact same sectors experience wage gaps. For instance, female doctors and surgeons earn 71 percent of men’s wages. Female financial specialists earn 66 percent of men’s wages. Wage and hiring discrimination has been a major hurdle for women since we joined the workforce. This is discrimination against women in real time. This is what happens when inadvertent implicit bias against women runs unchecked, even though studies show that the work women do is far from inferior. Of course, there’s not a secret committee of people deciding to pay women less, but the subconscious negative assumptions about women and work add up to a massive amount of money lost for women over time.

Naysayers—who are usually a medley of corporate CEOs, conservative legislators and media pundits—often ridiculously (and insultingly) argue that the wage gap doesn’t deserve attention because women just aren’t negotiating enough, aren’t equally qualified, are trading pay for benefits or other ludicrous excuses. But the wage gap can’t be blamed on women for a supposed “lack of confidence” or a lack of leaning in. The truth is that women ask for raises just as often as men, but women are granted raises less often—and to make matters worse, women are also regularly penalized for asking.

What we’re seeing is flat-out discrimination. The wage gap isn’t the result of women’s lack of confidence, quietness or bad choices—and it’s also certainly not a reflection of men being “more motivated by money” than women, as New Hampshire state representative Will Infantine said as he argued against the New Hampshire Paycheck Equality Act. There is very real wage and hiring discrimination going on.

One series of studies painted a stark picture: Moms were hired 80 percent less often than women with equal résumés who didn’t have children. And when moms are hired, they’re offered salaries that are on average $11,000 lower than what’s offered to non-moms. On the other hand, dads with equal résumés were offered $6,000 more than non-dads, proving that the antiquated idea that only men need paychecks large enough to support their families is alive and well—not to mention, keeping many families poor and hungry. Studies have also shown that employees who identified as mothers are perceived to be less competent, less promotable and less likely to be recommended for management, despite having the same credentials as non-mothers. Still today, women have to think about whether to hide their status as mothers during job interviews.

A major study found that men receive a wage bonus of 11.6 percent when they become fathers. But moms, on the other hand, get a wage penalty for motherhood of 4 percent per child; that, Michelle J. Budig, writing in Third Way, reports, “Cannot be explained by human capital, family structure, family-friendly job characteristics or differences among women that are stable over time… This motherhood penalty is larger among low-wage workers while the top 10 percent of female workers incur no motherhood wage penalty.”

Often when books are written and stories are told about the fight for women’s equality, the main focus is only on highly paid professional women breaking the glass ceiling and the hurdles women face in those sectors. That’s an important conversation to have, but it’s time for a reality check: The hourly wage gaps are adding up into annual earnings gaps. Only 10 percent of all women in the labor force earn $75,000 or more annually, which means 90 percent of all working women earn less. In fact, 31 percent of women are in the next lower wage bracket, earning between $30,000 and $74,999 annually, and the majority of working women—59 percent—earn less than $30,000 annually, while only 40 percent of men earn less than $30,000 annually.

There are many negative rippling repercussions to a full 90 percent of women earning less than $75,000 a year, more than half of whom are earning less than $30,000 a year. One is that too many women are working hard, playing by the rules and still falling below the poverty line—and are struggling to raise families and open doors for their children to thrive. Christy shares that in her life, the wage gap, coupled with low wages, caused her to have two or three minimum jobs at one time when her sons were young in order to make ends meet. Even with that extra work, Christy often still couldn’t get her young children proper dental care, tutoring or clothing when they needed it.

Wage discrimination against women and moms needs to stop. It’s hurting our economy, our businesses, our families and our communities. It’s not just me who thinks this. Economic studies show that equal pay for women would boost our entire national economy. A recent analysis of data over time by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that if women received equal pay for equal work, it would cut poverty by more than half for women and families and add $513 billion to our national economy. Having pay parity, studies find, would increase our gross domestic product by at least three percent. When women don’t have funds to spend in our consumer-fueled economy, businesses have fewer customers and there is lower economic activity across our nation on the whole.

We can do better for everyone and for our economy. To start, we need to update our outdated family economic security policies to help fully close the gap. Families need access to paid family and medical leave, earned sick days and affordable childcare. We cannot close the gaps between moms and women without children, and between women and men overall, without these policies. Of course, we also need pay transparency legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act so that apples-to-apples comparisons of pay can be made and outright discrimination can be stopped in its tracks.

It doesn’t take rocket science to move these policies forward. We’ve already seen a lot of forward movement at the state levels because of people reaching out to elected leaders. It takes as many people as possible raising their voices and demanding that change happen.

Make no mistake: Together we can march our entire nation forward, not just for women but for everyone. When women win, America wins—and women can lift our nation.


Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner is the author of Keep Marching and Executive Director and CEO of MomsRising—an on-the-ground and online grassroots organization of more than a million people who are working to increase family economic security, decrease discrimination against women and moms and build a nation where businesses and families can thrive.