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Why Do Married Moms Make Less Than Married Dads?


The largest gender pay gap, according to PayScale’s latest report, is between married women with children and married men with children. This is true whether you look at uncontrolled data, or controlled data that accounts for job type, education, management responsibilities, and location, and so on. It’s that controlled data that tells the real story. Generally, when we talk about why women earn less than men, we attribute the discrepancy, at least in part, to the idea that women are more likely to prioritize family over work. But, respondents to PayScale’s survey, which forms the basis for the report, told us a very different story.


(Photo: erix!/Flickr)

First, let’s look at how family affects pay. The smallest controlled gender wage gap was between single men without kids and single women without kids: -0.6 percent, meaning that women earn 0.6 percent less than men.

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Add children and marriage into the mix, and the gap starts growing. Single moms have the lowest overall salaries; the controlled gender pay gap between single men with kids and single women with kids is -1.5 percent. Meanwhile, the controlled gender pay gap between married men without kids and married women without kids is -1.6 percent.

Single dads don’t get off scot-free, either: Single men with kids make a median, annual salary of $46,200, while single men without kids earn $47,700. For both men and women, it seems that the combination of marriage and children leads to a salary bump, but married fathers earn more money relative to their wives – a marriage-and-fatherhood bonus, if you will.

In fact, the highest gender pay gap of all, both controlled and uncontrolled, is between married men and women with children: -4.2 percent, controlled for factors like job, experience, and so on. Married men also earn the highest overall salaries ($67,900 for men with children; $60,800 for those without).

The question, of course, is: why do married women with children earn so much less than married men with children?

You could be forgiven for assuming this question was a gimme. The obvious answer is that women take more time off work to spend with their families, and are penalized as a result. The data, however, show a different story.

Men Are More Likely to Report Prioritizing Home Over Work … But Less Likely to Be Punished for It

Contrary to the stereotype, men reported prioritizing home/family obligations over work obligations more frequently than women: 28 percent of men prioritize home/family over work at least one to two times per month vs. 25 percent of women.

Women who did say they prioritized their home obligations over their work obligations took a greater hit to their salaries, however. For example, in the chart below, you can see that women who reported prioritizing home one or more times per week earned 3.4 percent less than men, while those who did so one to two times per month earned 3 percent less than men.

Significantly, only single men and women who reported never prioritizing home over work showed a 0.0 percent pay gap. Married women without kids, on the other hand, earned 1.6 percent less than married men without kids. In other words, even without school obligations or the occasional sick kid, married women’s salaries took a hit compared with men’s.

Why? In Part, Because of Unconscious Bias

“Most people think the reason for women’s stalled advancement is they prioritize family over work and ratchet back hours,” Robin Ely, a professor and senior associate dean for culture and community at Harvard Business School, told The Upshot. Ely worked on a 2014 Harvard Business School study that tracked alumni over time. “But when we looked at those things statistically, nothing explained the gender gap in membership in top management teams.”

In her summary of the findings at Harvard Business Review, Ely writes:

Despite the fact that men and women actually have pretty similar career priorities, the belief that women value career less is widespread. We found that 77% of HBS graduates overall—73% of men and 85% of women—believe that “prioritizing family over work” is the number one barrier to women’s career advancement. (We saw essentially the same numbers when we restricted the analysis to graduates who are in top management positions and when we included Executive Education graduates, suggesting that this conviction packs some punch.)

As one alumna in her mid-thirties noted, a key factor is still “deep-rooted attitudes that a woman should be the primary caregiver, so it is ‘understood’ that her career may have to take a backseat for a while as similar male colleagues move ahead at a more rapid pace.”

Perhaps worst of all, this assumption cropped up at both work and home. More than half the male Gen Xers and Baby Boomers surveyed in Ely’s study reported that they expected their careers to take precedence over partners’. This suggests that even high-powered women experience bias on both ends: at work, from their colleagues, who expect them to opt out, and at home, from their families, who assume that their careers will switch into lower gear to accommodate family priorities.

What’s the Answer?

Dismantling bias is a tricky proposition, and requires active participation from the biased (which is all of us, no matter how good our intentions are). In addition to well-meaning folks challenging themselves to treat their female colleagues the way they’d treat a man, closing the gender pay gap once and for all will likely require some combination of the following:

  • Providing better support for working parents. This means affordable childcare and paid parental leave, but also schools that don’t assume there’s someone (mom) home during the day to raise funds and chaperone events.
  • Encouraging girls to study STEM. The uncontrolled gap is larger in part because men are more likely to choose higher paying jobs, such as those in STEM fields. Why do girls drop out of science- and math-focused academic tracks? Partly, because they’re led to believe they’re “bad at math,” but also because students in general don’t understand that being “good at math” requires learned skills and not a knack for numbers. If you’re told you’re bad at math, and think excelling in math class is something that either happens naturally or not at all, you’re less likely to stick with it.
  • Letting go of the idea of salary history. It’s a vicious cycle: at her first job after completing her education, a woman is offered a salary, which may or may not be fair and equal to that of a similarly qualified male candidate. She might try to negotiate, or choose not to, either because of feeling uncomfortable discussing money, or because she perceives that negotiation isn’t welcome at her prospective employer. Every salary after that builds off her previous, possibly unfair, salary. When you’re a leader, change things by basing offers on skills and experience, not prior pay; when you’re a candidate, use tools like PayScale’s Salary Survey to determine how much the market will bear. And whatever you do, avoid giving your own salary history unless absolutely necessary.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you experienced the gender pay gap? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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