A few months after we got married, my partner and I had our first concrete conversation about when we might have kids. I was 27 and in the second year of my doctoral program; he was 26 and working in real estate.
“I’ve got to finish grad school. And then find a job,” I said.
“Yeah, and then I might want to go to grad school,” he replied.
“Plus, if all goes well, I’ll be trying to earn tenure for most of my 30s …” We looked at each other and laughed as it dawned on us that there was seemingly no good time in the next decade for us to expand our family.
A recent report has added another dimension to the conversation about the timing of building a family. New research indicates that a 10-year span during women’s prime earning (and childbearing) years is critically important to the gender wage gap, according to a report on the paper in The New York Times.
Women who have children before 25 or after 35, the report demonstrates, eventually catch up to their husbands’ salaries, but women who have children during that 10-year window, on average, never do. (For methodological reasons, this study focused on women married to men, so queer couples and single mothers are left out of this iteration of the conversation. But single mothers may be even more vulnerable to the gender pay gap; a 2014 study found that single mothers took an even bigger pay hit than their married counterparts.)
Although saddened by these findings, I wasn’t surprised. I think about this often in my own field; I’ve seen the challenges faced by colleagues who have had children while in graduate school, and I’ve heard from several faculty members that it doesn’t get easier once on the tenure track.
Essentially, what that means is that for over a decade from one’s early- or mid-20s (when many graduate students begin their doctoral programs) until one’s mid- to late-30s (when one might earn tenure, if all goes well), I and many other female academics are on a professional trajectory that does not readily support having a family.
“Discussions of pay equity too often fall short because we fail to break down these issues along different axes of inequality.”
Academe may be an extreme example in some ways, but other professions ask women to make similar sacrifices — focus on your career for a decade or more, and then maybe think about having a child. It’s an unreasonable ask.
Thankfully, the Times’ article on this paper doesn’t ask women to put off having kids but instead highlights the necessity of policy changes — like subsidized child care, better parental leave policies (so that mothers alone don’t bear the burden) and flexible schedules — to address the challenges working mothers face rather than suggesting individual-level fixes. These changes would certainly go a long way toward alleviating the inequalities working moms face, but it’s important the conversation about this issue not stop there.
First, it’s critically important that our framing of this issue include all women. Discussions of pay equity too often fall short because we fail to break down these issues along different axes of inequality. The sample drawn on in the new Census Bureau study making the rounds consisted overwhelmingly (85 percent) of white couples, with black couples and couples of other races making up just 7 percent each.
With so-called Equal Pay Day last week ― symbolizing how far into the year women would have to work to match men’s earnings in the previous year ― there’s been a lot of conversation about gendered gaps in pay, much of which has focused on a number that only represents women on average.
For black and Native American women, Equal Pay Day isn’t until Aug. 7 or Sept. 27, respectively. For Latinx women, it’s not until Nov. 1. We could calculate an Equal Pay Day for Asian women, but doing so would mask incredible heterogeneity (by ethnicity and national origin) in Asian women’s pay. We’d also be remiss if we neglected to consider how disabled women also suffer a wage gap, making, on average, 72 cents for every dollar earned by a disabled man.
And none of these figures adequately represents women experiencing multiple forms of marginalization. This is important because white women’s experiences simply don’t represent all of us. As the Census Bureau report notes, the increase in the pay gap around the time of the birth of a couple’s first child was smaller for black couples, which is perhaps not surprising considering that black women haven’t had the same ability to downshift at work as they have become mothers.
“We need to find ways to talk about women who choose to prioritize raising a family without simply writing off their choice as lost income.”
In thinking about how black women have long had to balance working and parenting, I find that this conversation about the pay gap also highlights the need for us as a society to value gendered labor, like child rearing, as much as we value paid work outside the home. Even if women were, on average, compensated equally with men at the office, that would do little to recognize the fact that women still do a disproportionate amount of the work in the home. It also would fail to account for the fact that women, especially women of color, disproportionately wind up in low-paying caregiving occupations, such as home health aides. While we should ensure that working mothers have the support they need to balance work and family, we also need to make sure that white women don’t gain that support at the expense of underpaid women of color.
We also need to find ways to support and talk about women who choose to prioritize raising a family without simply writing off their choice as lost income. Pay equity is an important indicator of gender parity in our society, but when it comes to ensuring women’s work is adequately valued across professional and domestic spheres, we might need to consider that salary is only one important outcome.
As a society, our conception of what labor looks like and what labor should be valued is deeply gendered, to the detriment of women and the work we do. If we’re going to take the kinds of steps needed to fix the gender pay gap, we need not just structural changes but cultural ones as well.
We need to start valuing women, full stop. We need to value mothers and caregivers and the work they do. We need to value black women, Native women, Asian women, Latinx women, Pacific Islander women, queer women, trans women, disabled women and women at all the intersections thereof.
We need to fight for policies that will lead to equal pay for women, but we also need to think about how to restructure social norms and career trajectories in ways that don’t treat cis men’s bodies and experiences as the default.
Above all, we need to ensure that multiple forces of marginalization are at the forefront of our analyses, lest we achieve equal pay for married, non-disabled white women and leave less privileged women behind.
Nadirah Farah Foley is a sociologist of education working toward her doctorate at Harvard. Her academic research examines issues of race, inequality and culture in education and society.