Every woman’s career journey is unique. But whether it involves a linear path up the corporate ladder or detours for motherhood or other opportunities, that journey tends to run into one frustratingly consistent obstacle: the gender pay gap.
Not only has the difference between the earnings of men and women failed to narrow significantly over the past several years, but the pay gap increases as a woman’s career progresses.
This inverse correlation between years worked and pay equity is one of several findings in Pew Research Center’s recently released report, The Enduring Grip of the Gender Pay Gap. The report’s authors concluded that while “Women generally begin their careers closer to wage parity with men … they lose ground as they age and progress through their work lives, a pattern that has remained consistent over time.”
Motherhood’s Effect on the Pay Gap
The Pew report found that in 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar men earned. That was roughly the same as in 2002, when women earned 80 cents to the dollar. [See Women On Business’ What’s She Worth? Infographic from 2013 for more details about the history of the U.S. gender pay gap.]
However, the pay gap was narrower for women in the earlier stages of their careers. Starting in 2007, the earnings of women aged 25-34 have consistently been close to 90 cents to the dollar or more compared with men of the same age.
But things go off the pay equity rails after that.
According to the report, the most dramatic increase in the gender pay gap occurs when women are between the ages of 35 and 44. In 2022, women in that age range earned 83% as much as men of the same age – a sharp decrease from the 92 cents on the dollar women ages 25 to 34 earned. The gap widened even more among women aged 55-64 to 79 cents on the dollar. The authors noted that this general pattern hasn’t changed in at least four decades.
Parenthood stands out as the single most significant factor behind the widening pay gap.
“The increase in the pay gap coincides with the age at which women are more likely to have children under 18 at home,” according to the report.
The effect of motherhood on actual and potential earnings – and how it differs from the effect of fatherhood – can be seen in many ways. While motherhood leads many women to put their careers on hold, fatherhood has the opposite effect on men.
In 2022, mothers aged 25 to 34 earned 85% as much as fathers that age, but women who didn’t have children at home earned 97% as much as fathers.
Among those ages 35 to 44, 94% of fathers are active in the workforce, compared with 75% of mothers – a 19% gap. But among those who don’t have children at home in this age group, 84% of men and 78% of women are active in the workforce – a gap of only 6%.
In 2022, 70% of mothers ages 25 to 34 had a job or were looking for one, compared with 84% of women of the same age who didn’t have children at home. This amounted to the withdrawal of 1.4 million younger mothers from the workforce.
Younger mothers who are employed tend to put in a shorter workweek – by two hours per week, on average – than other women their age.
Women who pause their careers after becoming mothers sacrifice at least some of their potential earnings, and those mothers who never work for pay after having children take a pass on earnings altogether.
The widening of the pay gap with parenthood appears to be driven by an increase in fathers’ earnings – the so-called “fatherhood wage premium.” Fathers aged 25 to 54 not only earn more than mothers the same age, but they also earn more than men who don’t have children at home.
Narrowing the Gap
The Pew report also discussed how other factors, such as ethnicity and education level, contribute to the pay disparity between men and women.
While recent legislative efforts to narrow the pay gap, including equal pay and pay transparency laws, will hopefully improve the situation, the report suggests that “sustained progress in closing the pay gap may depend on deeper changes in societal and cultural norms and in workplace flexibility that affect how men and women balance their careers and family lives.” Additionally, “gender stereotypes and discrimination, though difficult to quantify, also appear to be among the ‘last-mile’ hurdles impeding further progress.”
The unjust gender pay gap that women have endured has greatly impacted generations of women’s career, financial, and personal trajectories. Committing to the eradication of the gender pay gap for women during every stage of their careers – regardless of parental status – will enable an inclusive and long-overdue future in the workplace.
About the Author
Pamela Johnson is a member of Halunen Law’s Employment Practice Group.