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Why the Pay Gap for Working Moms Is a Race Issue Too

5 minute read
Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the First Partner of California; filmmaker behind Miss Representation, The Mask You Live In and The Great American Lie; and founder of the Representation Project.

It is tempting to let this Mom’s Equal Pay Day — a day that comes in the midst of unspeakable tragedy and turmoil in our country — pass without remark. As we reel, not just from the 100,000 lives lost to COVID-19 and millions of people out of work, but from how this all compounds with decades of discrimination and racism now boiling at the surface, moments like these help us recognize that disparities don’t just evolve out of nowhere. Instead, they are the result of generations of behaviors and policies that communicate our nation’s values.

To begin to unravel the tangled mess of institutionalized discrimination and racism that exists throughout our country, we must also look deeply into our economic system. This year, Mom’s Equal Pay Day falls on June 4, marking the 156 extra days moms have to work to make what dads made last year. With pre-pandemic data, there was already a clear narrative about the ways society devalues working moms, making it harder for them to succeed in their dual role as caregivers and breadwinners. In fact, though 55% of moms with kids under the age of 18 were working full time, moms overall were making just 70 cents on average for every dollar that fathers made. For moms of color, the statistics were predictably worse. Black moms are more likely to participate in the workforce than moms of any other race, and about 85% of black mothers are the primary, sole or co-breadwinner for their families, but in 2017, they were making only 54 cents compared to white dads’ dollar. Latina moms, meanwhile, were making even less — 46 cents.

And no, this is not because of women’s “choices.” Instead, the mother’s pay gap is a result of a combination of factors, and each one is more insidious for women of color. Working moms face inherent bias — an assumption that they are less committed to their jobs once they have children — and this is further compounded when faced with racial bias. Working moms also face a lack of institutional policies and practices like flex time, paid family leave and affordable childcare — and women of color are more likely to work in low-paying industries with fewer of these benefits (a lack of paid family leave is particularly concerning for black moms given that they face higher rates of complications from pregnancy). And finally, let’s not forget that caregiving disproportionately falls to mothers, affecting their careers and their earning potential. Women of color are also more likely to say that childcare is difficult to find, with nearly 40% of black women citing cost as a factor.

But in looking at the mother’s pay gap through this lens, we still need to be honest with ourselves – as this moment demands – and recognize that we have not yet scratched the surface of the larger frame of institutionalized racism in American society.

This past week, the particular plight of black mothers has appeared in stark view. In addition to disproportionate economic hardships, black mothers face a constant fear for their precious children’s lives and are forced to watch them grow up in a world that devalues them and then have heart-wrenching conversations about how to protect themselves from people who are supposed to be their protectors. This isn’t just rhetoric. It is rooted in very real, staggering and devastating statistics. We must recognize the enormous toll this daily stress takes on the mental and physical health of black mothers in particular.

As the First Partner of California, my priorities have been focused on women, children and families. I understand intimately that women are the backbones of their families, communities and society at large – and that when we uplift women, we uplift everyone. And I believe firmly that working mothers, especially mothers of color, need a new reality now — one that supports their full humanity.

It is clear that nothing will change unless we invest in policies that support working moms, and understand how these policies impact communities differently. We need the public and private sectors to provide paid family leave, and men need to take this leave, too. We also need affordable childcare — easily accessible for working parents — just as we need businesses to provide flex time and paid sick leave for parents. We need diversity, equity and inclusion policies within corporate hiring and promotion practices — prioritized from the top down — and frankly, we need an overhaul of the corporate bro culture which is unwelcome even to many men. And we need strong equal pay laws across this nation. California has the strongest equal pay laws in the country and the smallest pay gap, but because of COVID-19 – which hit black and brown communities disproportionately in terms of both health and job loss — there is so much work left to do.

Cycles repeat themselves unless checked, and systemic is, by definition, ingrained. Identifying and correcting the places where intended or unintended inequalities exist is where we begin to rewrite the status quo. We have to approach transformative change with a new lens — one that inspires us individually and collectively to look at our biases, root out our prejudices and work toward a more just future for everyone.

So this Mom’s Equal Pay Day, let’s commit to valuing the working moms in our society and paying them their real worth.

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