The Female Experience: Despite A Federal Law, the Pay Gap Continues for America’s Working Mothers

In 1963, then-President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. The law’s goal was to eliminate the wage discrepancy between men and women. In that year, women averaged 61 percent of what men made, nationally; today, the number is 80.5 percent.

Women from Oklahoma have it slightly worse, but it’s not all bad news: only 42 states have a better rate. Oklahoma’s women earn 77 percent—nearly three points worse than the national average.

“I think the wage gap is super unfair,” said Sarah Alvarez, a student at Oklahoma City Community College. Sarah has hiked the Appalachian Trail, catered to eleven NBA teams, and is training to become a realtor. She’s also seen the wage gap firsthand.

While working an extra job to save up for the Appalachian Trail, Sarah learned a male coworker with less time on the job was making more than her.

“I had worked there twice as long as he had, and I was pretty high up. But he was making at least $2.50 more than me,” Alvarez said. “It infuriated me, but of course I couldn’t ask him. And I didn’t bring it up to management, because I was planning on leaving for the Trail.”

Overt discrimination contributes to the pay gap, but only minimally. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2017 only 5.1 percent of wage discrimination suits were found to have “reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred.”

When broken down farther, the main source of the modern pay gap begins to reveal itself. Today, women without children earn 96 percent what men earn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mothers, on the other hand, only make 76 percent.

Caitlin Kraft, executive general manager at Redrock Canyon Grill, thinks she avoided the motherhood penalty in part by returning to work soon after childbirth.

“I don’t think [the pay gap]’s affected me at all,” Kraft said. “I was offered GM when I was nine months pregnant with my first child. I was kind of surprised because I wondered if they wouldn’t offer it to me since I was pregnant,” Kraft said. “And I still only took the minimum amount of weeks off with both my children.”

She acknowledges her story could be the exception, though.

“I think there’s some women that probably don’t get the benefit of the doubt like I got,” Kraft said.

A 2015 Pew Research survey found that 31 percent of participants believe mothers are responsible for the majority of household responsibilities, compared to 9 percent for fathers. This suggests a cultural vestige: working mothers are still expected to spend more time than fathers on child-rearing and housework.

This unequal expectation is reflected in the pay gap, as well. Per the BLS, pay increases by an average of 6 percent when a man becomes a father. Mothers, however, see their pay decrease by 4 percent—per child.

Internationally, inequality in parental leave likely plays a big part in both the “fatherhood bonus” and the “motherhood penalty.” In 2000, Iceland passed an act giving fathers a three month “use it or lose it” paternity leave to match their three month maternity leave. Iceland also gives both parents an additional three months to be split up how they choose.

From 2004 to now, Iceland’s pay gap went from 81 cents on the dollar to 90, per the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

America, take notice.

“I think there are companies out there that don’t move women up because they are the ones who could get pregnant and have to take time off,” said Kraft, the restaurant manager. “And I do think that sometimes it’s frowned-upon even for people to take off the full amount that [the Family and Medical Leave Act] allows.”

Taking minimal time off suits her just fine, though. “I couldn’t be that mom that stays at home and cooks. I like my job, I like to work,” Kraft said. And that commitment has paid off for her professionally. “I feel extremely competent at my job,” Kraft said.

“But when it comes to motherhood, I don’t feel as successful as I am in business. I do my best to make sure I do well at both, but for me, sometimes my home life falls before my job does. That’s just how my mind works, it’s always been ‘Succeed at your job, succeed at your job,’ so I think sometimes mommying goes on the backburner.”

She likely isn’t alone in that feeling, according to the Department of Labor. Kraft’s household is one of the record-high 40 percent with mothers as the primary breadwinner.

But even with her maternal drive being overtaken at times by her professional drive, foregoing one for the other was never an option. Kraft knew from a young age she wanted it all.

“Yeah, I think I had that growing up, the sense that I want children,” Kraft said. “But I didn’t want mommy to be my only job; I didn’t grow up with a mom like that. She went back to med school when I was in middle school, and graduated when I was in high school,” Kraft said. “So to me, that was what I should do.”

Alvarez has also felt strong professional and maternal drives for much of her life. She said she “absolutely” wants to start a family eventually. But she said the path many of her peers have taken doesn’t jive with her own plans.

“I do have a lot of friends that, since they started having babies as soon as we graduated, they didn’t go to college and they’re not in high paying jobs,” Alvarez said. And she sees a connection between those examples and the motherhood penalty.

“I’m not saying it’s because they had children, but obviously it makes it harder. And if women are getting paid less just because they do have children, I’m kind of slowly starting to understand why more single moms go towards welfare,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez subscribes to a long-term vision for her life, when it comes to motherhood versus professional endeavors. “I base a lot of my decisions off of my unborn children that I don’t plan on having anytime soon,” she said.

Alvarez’s feelings about waiting to have children reflect a growing trend: more of America’s women are now waiting until their 30s to finally don the mantle of motherhood, according to data from the Center for Disease Control.

“I feel like especially now that women are trying more and more to have those high-paying positions and be leaders, I feel like a lot of women now are waiting to have children. Or they’re not having children so that they can have the same opportunities as men,” Alvarez said. And she’ll know when the time is right; she already has a timetable in mind.

“I want to be financially stable before I have children,” she said. Finishing her time at OCCC en route to a four-year degree is a major milestone in her plan.

“I remember my mom always saying, ‘When I was your age, I wish I did what you were doing.’ I don’t ever want to tell my kids that. I want to tell my kids that you can do anything you want to do,” Alvarez said. “I just wanna be able to say that I got a degree, like ‘I can do it—you can do it.’”

She wants to be an example and a role model for her future children, but she’s also hopeful that barriers like the motherhood penalty won’t be there to hold back the next generation of women.

“Issues like this are huge, and I think people need to start talking about them,” she said.

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