Are babies to blame for women’s lower pay?

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By Kristine Kilanski

In a recent article, New York Times correspondent Claire Cain Miller posed a puzzle of longstanding interest to sociologists of work: Today when women leave school and enter the workforce they earn roughly the same as their men counterparts. However, soon women’s and men’s wages begin to diverge.

What leads to the emergence of a gender pay gap? Miller’s answer largely mimics the lyrics to a well-known children’s riddle: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes [insert man’s name here] and [insert woman’s name here] with a baby carriage.”

Miller offers two main pieces of evidence to support the claim that marriage and babies are to blame for the gender pay gap. For one, the gender pay gap widens the most when workers are in their late twenties and early thirties—around the time women are likely to get married and to become mothers. Secondly, unmarried women without children tend to earn roughly the same as their men counterparts.

Miller argues that the “big reason” women who have children, and even women who are married without children, have lower wages relative to their men counterparts is the unequal gender division of labor at home, which takes place “even when both spouses work full time.” She notes that retaining primary caregiving responsibility for children is especially tough on the wages of college-educated women in high-paying occupations—whom she later explains face difficultly meshing caregiving with the 24/7 work culture associated with the jobs these women hold.

Miller attributes the marriage penalty faced by women to a combination of the tendency for married women to privilege their husband’s careers in decision-making, lowered career ambitions in anticipation of motherhood, and reduced opportunities at work as a result of employer suspicion regarding married women’s long-term commitment to their careers. She quotes an economist who suggests that the gendered division of labor is a rational, if unfortunate, response to present demands on families.

To be sure, the New York Times article offers important insights into the production of the gender pay gap. It is well-established, for example, that the energy of caring for children unequally falls on women’s shoulders (and, as part of the “sandwich generation”—also the care of elderly parents), and that this impacts women’s paid work in numerous ways.

However, Miller’s analysis of the gender pay gap fails to include other key insights from the sociology of work that offer not only a fuller picture of the state of women’s paid labor today but also a less rosy one.

Highly disappointing, for example, is Miller’s implicit assumption that the only context in which childrearing takes place is within heterosexual marriage. Implicitly attributing the gender pay gap to wives’ failed attempts to “make [their] partner a real partner” (one of Sheryl Sandberg’s admonishments to women who want to advance their careers) erases both the complexity of families (a minority of which are led by a two-parent heterosexual couple in their first marriage) but also those families most likely to suffer as a result of women’s lower earnings: the nearly quarter of all families led by single mothers.

Lowered career ambitions or sacrifices to support husbands’ breadwinning are not at the heart of the reason households led by single mothers are among the most at-risk of living in poverty. Rather, the devaluation of and lack of support more generally for the labor of motherhood and the concentration of poor and working class women in what sociologist Arne Kalleberg calls “bad jobs” are to blame.

Given that marriage is increasingly concentrated among those at the higher end of the income bracket, poor and working class women face a sort of double jeopardy: Their jobs are less likely to pay enough to support their families, but they are also less likely to have access to a partner with a good job—or a partner of any sort—to help them with either childcare or making ends meet.

Moreover, even in discussing the impact of marriage and motherhood on women in heterosexual relationships Miller misses a few beats.

Whether women downshift their career and educational plans in anticipation of motherhood or whether the family planning thesis is better thought of as a “myth” instead of “a mechanism” of gendered segregation into occupations remains highly contested within the sociology of work.

Regardless of whether or not women seek to enter occupations that enable them to balance caregiving and paid labor, sociologists have concluded  women are not more likely than men to work in jobs that accommodate family responsibilities. Even part-time jobs are often better suited to meet employers’ needs for flexibility than mothers’ needs to balance work and family responsibilities. This is why sociologists of work have been quick to decry “common sense” arguments that mothers “opt out” of full time paid work or paid work altogether (the narrative implicitly advanced by Miller), but instead focus their energies on identifying the workplace practices and policies that operate to “push” mothers out of their paid jobs.

Further, research by sociologist Sarah Damaske challenges the idea that middle class women like the ones Miller centers in her analysis are choosing raising children over work; instead, Damaske reveals that these women are more likely than their working class counterparts to remain steadily employed. That’s because maintaining steady employment takes significant financial resources.

It should be clear by now that motherhood does not have a uniform impact on women’s relationship to their paid work. Moreover, despite the article’s framing—most explicit in the its title, “The Gender Pay Gap is Largely Because of Motherhood”—motherhood is not the only reason women’s pay suffers relative to men’s. In fact, Miller herself introduces evidence of this when she quotes a study that finds that a large portion of the pay gap results from women not getting raises and promotions at the same rate as men—though this finding quickly gets swallowed up in her commitment to her original point.

Good ol’ fashioned gender stereotypes of women continue to keep the “glass ceiling” and “concrete ceiling” in place, and to hinder white women and women of color from achieving positions of leadership. While we may like to believe “Mad Men” style workplace antics are a thing of the past, women continue to face gendered sexual harassment in the workplace, leading to short- and potential long-term impacts on their earnings.

Both experimental and organizational research consistently shows that, controlling for performance, women face numerous biases in bonus, promotion, and termination decisions. While it may provide some solace to think gender equality in paid labor is possible if only women forgo children and marriage (a pretty sad request in and of itself), the evidence doesn’t quite stack up that all women have to do is throw away their engagement rings and stock up on birth control to be treated equally in the workplace.

My final qualm with Miller’s article is more of a philosophical one. Despite a longstanding scholarly and personal commitment to promoting women’s equality, I often wonder what utility we derive by holding a narrow view focused on the gender pay gap between women and men alone. As sociologist Christine L. Williams argues, the focus on women’s disadvantages compared to men can miss the mark, especially when this perspective is applied to workers at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. She writes:

“Yes, women in these jobs earn less than men, and yes, feminists should support their efforts to use Title VII to redress these inequalities (as in the recent class action lawsuit brought against Wal-Mart). But what is the point of being “equal” to a man working at Wal-Mart? These are bad jobs, paying below living wages, with virtually no benefits or opportunities for advancement. By focusing on gender inequality, we sometimes ignore the big picture of economic inequality in society, which has only been exacerbated in the recent neoliberal free-for-all” (2006, 457).

By focusing mainly on the fact that women at the top earn less than their partners, Miller forgets her earlier research into the fact that one of the main ways economic inequality is maintained and sustained today is through the creation of “power couples.” In this way, the greater the gender equality at the top, the worse prospects for families at the bottom.

Overall, efforts to undergird gender equality in pay cannot be divorced from larger questions about greater equality and stability for all.

*Originally posted on Work in Progress: Sociology on the economy, work and inequality.

Kristine Kilanski is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

No Place for a Feminist: Intersectionality and the Problem South

By Wanda Rushing

Each generation of feminism produces new questions, responses, debates and critiques. Yet, old perceptions of the South as no place for a feminist continue to dominate popular culture and negatively affect academic researchers. From my standpoint as a white southerner, a feminist, and a sociologist, I want to challenge perceptions about feminism and the South. I suggest using a framework that considers the importance of place or locality.  A place framework may potentially change understandings of social actors in particular places, not only in the American South but also in other regions. It also may affect perceptions and studies of feminism. Paying attention to intersectionality, region, and place offers an additional level of complexity and explanatory power for understanding gender, sexualities, and social movements, as well as southern feminism.

Historically, some southerners have gloved their resistance to social injustices within the boundaries of traditional expectations for  gender conformity and decorum. Others have been willing to take greater risks, asserting bold public statements, engaging in civil disobedience, or pursuing legal remedies for discrimination.  A few prominent  names include Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Norma L. McCorvey (Roe v. Wade),  Mildred Loving (Loving v. Virginia),  Lilly Ledbetter ( Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009), Barbara Jordan (congresswoman), Crystal Lee Sutton (Norma Rae), Ann Richards (governor) and Wendy Davis (legislator). Many have engaged in subtle but powerful acts of everyday resistance, easily missed by outsiders. In North Carolina, however, recent responses to misogynistic commentary on the 2017 Women’s March have been anything but subtle.  Misogynistic remarks tweeted by one North Carolina state legislator garnered national attention and provoked a local backlash.  State Senator Joyce Krawiec tweeted: “Message to crazies@Women’s March – If brains were lard, you couldn’t grease a small skillet.  You know who you are.” After tubs of lard began accumulating at her office and her home, sent by angry constituents who also started a GOFUNDME account to send more, Krawiec deleted the tweet and apologized. Another North Carolina official, the state’s newly elected Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, shared a meme on Facebook linked to his twitter account saying:  “In one day Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years.” Inundated with a barrage of criticism, he apologized. Misogynistic and racist tweets, insults, and disparaging remarks about the march have not been limited to North Carolina or to the South, but there is something southern about these particular insults involving fat shaming and references to pig products, particularly as they relate to historical patterns of ridiculing women for lacking “proper decorum” as  means of social control. The negative response to these comments, however, along with lard shipments, suggest that a direct confrontational style, or taking-off-the-gloves approach may be replacing less direct forms of resistance observed in previous struggles in the region.

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Place matters not only for understanding feminists who protest discrimination and injustices in the South, but also for informing feminist research and activism about the South and in other regions.  Intersectionality offers a conceptual framework for thinking about place as part of the analysis of exclusion and marginalization, and for making invisible social actors more visible, particularly at the local or regional level.  Place offers an additional level of complexity for understanding social phenomena including sexualities and social movements. Theories of place broaden our understanding of intersectionality, and may fill lacunae in literature related to gender, sexualities, identities, and social movements. Place also contributes to new possibilities for feminist research and activism.

Wanda Rushing is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Memphis.  She served as SWS President in 2016. She is author of Memphis and the Paradox of Place:  Globalization in the American South (2009) and editor of Urbanization, Volume 15 of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (2010), both published by The University of North Carolina Press. She has published numerous articles on social inequality and the American South, most recently in Urban Studies (2016) and Urban Education (2017). Her current research focuses on feminism and the South, and the reproduction of durable inequality in education. Her full article “No Place for a Feminist: Intersectionality and the Deep South: SWS Presidential Address” can be found in the June 20017 Issue of Gender & Society

Sexism in ratings of intelligence across the life cycle

The Cost of Sexual Harassment

By Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, Amy Blackstone

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Image courtesy flickr Creative Commons

Last summer, Donald Trump shared how he hoped his daughter Ivanka might respond should she be sexually harassed at work. He said, “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case.” President Trump’s advice reflects what many American women feel forced to do when they’re harassed at work: quit their jobs. In our recent Gender & Society article, we examine how sexual harassment, and the job disruption that often accompanies it, affects women’s careers.

How many women quit and why?  Combining survey and interview data, our study shows how sexual harassment affects women at the early stages of their careers. Eighty percent of the women in our sample who reported either unwanted touching or a combination of other forms of harassment changed jobs within two years. Among women who were not harassed, only about half changed jobs over the same period. In our statistical models, women who were harassed were 6.5 times more likely than those who were not to change jobs. This was true after accounting for other factors – such as the birth of a child – that sometimes lead to job change. In addition to job change, industry change and reduced work hours were common after harassing experiences. Continue reading “The Cost of Sexual Harassment”

Hints of the Coming of the Women’s Marches

By Jo Reger

As someone who studies the contemporary U.S. feminist movement, I should not have been surprised by the global outpouring of protests on January 21, 2017. After all, you could feel the rumblings coming during the Clinton-Trump campaign. The outright misogyny of Donald Trump’s casual evaluation of women, in contrast to the empowered women rhetoric of Hillary Clinton. Emotions were running high, insults were being flung, and once agreeable neighbors began to argue with each other’s choice of yard signs.

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But stepping back from the heat of those moments, there were seeds planted for the global spread of women’s marches long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton threw their hats in the electoral ring.  Drawing on the old adage “hindsight is twenty-twenty,” I offer a few examples that offered hints of the women’s marches to come: Continue reading “Hints of the Coming of the Women’s Marches”

Gender and the MBA: Differences in Career Trajectories, Institutional Support, and Outcomes

By Sarah E. Patterson & Sarah Damaske

In 2013, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg directed women to “lean in” at work by taking individual initiative to move into leadership positions. While Sandberg acknowledges that women are behind men in terms of promotion and pay, she suggested these gender differences could be explained primarily by the choices women were making at work. Sociologists have long been skeptical of such an individual framing, as we were. In the study described here, we seek to understand the primary factors driving gender differences among MBA graduates, asking: do women’s and men’s pathways diverge following completion of the MBA program? If so, how and why do they diverge? Using 10 to 12 years of life history information from 74 MBA graduates of an elite University, we traced men’s and women’s work patterns after they graduated with their MBA, seeking to identify places of similarity and difference across gender. Continue reading “Gender and the MBA: Differences in Career Trajectories, Institutional Support, and Outcomes”

Gender & Society mourns passing of Professor Debra Gimlin

It is with sadness we report the passing of Professor Debra Gimlin of the University of Aberdeen in February of this year.

Professor Gimlin was a valued member of the Gender & Society editorial board and an accomplished researcher.

Our condolences are extended to her family, friends and colleagues.

GimlinA link to her tribute page is here – https://www.abdn.ac.uk/socsci/people/.