Joan Williams

WASHINGTON D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Celebrating a Happy Equal Pay Day April 16?

Not likely. Wage gaps, glass ceilings and maternal walls–with the resulting lower pay and smaller pensions–still hold sway over women’s working lives.

Every year, the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of major civil rights organizations, women’s groups, trade associations and labor unions, organizes Equal Pay Day to draw attention to the fact that, on average, women earn less than men. The coalition holds Equal Pay Day on a Tuesday to symbolize that women must work a full week, plus Monday and part of Tuesday of the next week to earn the wage that a man earns in the previous five-day-work week; this year Equal Pay Day is on April 16.

Recent statistics indicate that the gap between American men’s and women’s wages has actually been increasing since 1996. In addition, a recent, highly publicized government report from the General Accounting Office revealed that the wage gap is particularly high between male and female managers. And, for the first time since 1976, the labor force participation of mothers with infant children fell. What’s up?

Public figures committed to eliminating the pay gap remain mystified. New York Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, co-sponsor of the study on managers, noted that the “report raises more questions than it answers.”

Two-Thirds of Mothers Work Less than 40-Hour Week

Other information about the working lives of women may in fact shed important light on why the inequity persists and what we can do about it.

Statistics indicating that more women are in the labor force and more women are working full time are often cited as evidence of women’s growing employment equity. Both pieces of data are accurate. The glass, indeed, is half full.

But it’s also half empty. Here’s an equally true statistic you rarely hear: Two out of three mothers ages 25 through 44 work less than 40 hours a week.

Yes, two out of three. Eighty-five percent of women become mothers, and two-thirds of mothers work less than the standard full-time schedule during the key years of career development.

Given the depressed wages, few benefits, and lack of advancement of people who work part time, this goes a long way towards explaining women’s inequality. The wage gap statistic, which compares the wages of men who work full time to those of women who work full time, significantly underestimates women’s economic inequality.

The wage gap looks only at the minority of women whose work patterns are most similar to men’s, who are bound to be in better shape economically than other women. Most women’s aren’t. As a result, most women don’t get near the glass ceiling. They are stopped, long before, by the maternal wall.

Changing Definition of ‘Full Time’

The wage gap’s focus on full time helps explain why it has grown. Increasingly, full time, in many of the best blue- and white-collar jobs, has come to mean overtime. In fact, in the United States, we work longer hours than in any other industrialized nation. And overtime work is not evenly distributed: It’s more common in better-paid jobs.

But most women become mothers, and mothers, by in large, don’t work overtime. In fact, 92 percent of mothers work less than 50 hours a week. This helps explain the increasing wage gap, particularly that among managers. As good jobs require more and more overtime, most mothers are wiped out of the labor pool. Instead of rising in the ranks in proportionate numbers, mothers languish in jobs classified as “part-time” (even if they require a 40-hour work week), or stall out in “full-time” jobs in middle management or on the mommy track.

No wonder the wage gap has increased. But the deeper point is that the wage gap has important drawbacks as a measure of women’s equality. Recent studies compare the wages, not of men and women, but of mothers and other adults. These studies, by Jane Waldfogel, Paula English, and Michelle Budig, document a “family gap” between mothers and others, a gap that has been steadily increasing in recent decades, with women earning only about 60 percent of the wages of fathers.

Three Steps to Improve Women’s Earnings

At the Program on Gender, Work and Family at American University, Washington College of Law–the only law school program in the country dedicated to work/family issues–we have developed a three-part strategy for eliminating the maternal wall.

One initiative is to document the best practices for employers and develop model policies: not mommy tracks, or stigmatized family-friendly policies no one uses, but usable and effective personnel policies that do not penalize workers (male or female) who need time to care for children, elders, or sick family members. We also educate employers about how best-practices programs help the bottom line, by reducing attrition and absenteeism, and enhancing productivity and quality control.

Public policy initiatives also are in order. The three months’ leave provided by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is an important first step. But raising a child doesn’t take three months; it takes nearly 20 years. Families need sick leave so that they can care for ill children as well as themselves: U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, is developing such a bill. Finally, we need a law that guarantees “part-time parity:” proportional pay, benefits, training, and advancement for part-time work.

Last but not least, we need to end discrimination against family caregivers. Later this spring, the Program on Gender, Work and Family will be releasing a report documenting widespread discrimination against mothers and fathers who take an active role in family care and are finding increased success in the courts under federal discrimination statutes and other laws.

Through working with employers, better public policy, and more effective antidiscrimination initiatives, we can look forward next year to a happier Equal Pay Day.

Joan Williams, the author of “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It,” is executive director of the Program on Gender, Work and Family.

For more information:

Program on Gender, Work and Family at American University,
Washington College of Law:

AFL-CIO site on Equal Pay Day:

U.S. General Accounting Office Report,
“A New Look Though the Glass Ceiling: Where Are the Women?”
(in Adobde Acrobat pdf format):