In May of this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reached a $100,000 settlement agreement in a gender discrimination case against a Florida insurance broker. Why? The company revoked a woman’s job offer “20 minutes after she asked her would-be supervisor about its maternity policy.” Citing an “urgent” need to have someone in the position “long term,” the company made near-instant assumptions about the woman’s ability to do her job in the short term and about her commitment to the position more broadly.
Aside from the obvious harm that pregnancy discrimination causes, misconceptions abound about a pregnant or parenting woman’s ability to do her job. These perceptions about working mothers have serious financial and social consequences for women other than that one unlucky job-seeker.
Hours worked and perception of hours worked are variables widely understood to significantly contribute to the gender wage gap. Although it is clear that hours worked does not necessarily translate into productivity or otherwise convey how hard someone works, perceptions of time spent on the job can “suppress women’s paychecks as well as their opportunities for bonuses and career growth—in hourly and salaried positions.” Women who have caregiving responsibilities—or who employers fear might have babies and therefore caregiving responsibilities in the near future—are dinged in their pay.
So, as reported in the New York Times, the gender pay gap is, at least in part, a motherhood pay gap. Some have dubbed this the “mommy tax.” Mothers are perceived as less competent and less committed to their jobs. This lack of trust in working mothers means that they are offered significantly lower starting salaries, less likely to be recommended for promotions, and otherwise limited in their chances for career advancement. Employers often view pregnant women—like the would-be insurance worker in Florida—as disinterested even before they give birth. Combine this with the fact that men—especially those already privileged in the labor market—receive a “daddy bonus” and more leeway in the workplace when they have children, and an even clearer picture of the gender pay gap forms.
Even when women are affected by this only once, it can have devastating long-term effects. Lost wages and benefits, like retirement savings, add up over time in dollars and cents. A lower salary in even one year can make it harder to “catch up” with men who were not similarly penalized. A single missed opportunity for a promotion can mean a cycle of lower wages—but it can also mean a loss of respect among colleagues and more.
Making available flexible work options, quality child care, and affordable reproductive health care could help minimize the impact of this persistent disparity. Unfortunately, much work needs to be done to reverse the enduring beliefs about women and their ability to do work.
Could your employer be exposed to a pay discrimination case or gender discrimination case because of bias against pregnant women or mothers? Contact an experienced employment lawyer to talk about your specific circumstances.