Friday, October 1, 2010

Cost of Motherhood

(Harrison at 6 weeks old, April 2009)

Six weeks after I delivered our son, my husband and I had the “talk” – not the one about when we would have sex again – the one about what we were going to do with Harrison once my maternity leave was over. If both of us worked, almost an entire salary would be devoted to childcare.

We had to choose who was going to stay home.

At the time, I was making slightly more than my husband, who had taken a step back in his career to change directions. I had worked for a Boston-based financial firm for more than 10 years, netting out to six promotions, dozens of raises and bonuses, an office with a window overlooking the financial district and several pairs ornately decorated shoes to glam up my work uniform of dark skirt suits.

My husband was quick to offer his stay-at-home-dad services. But I hesitated. Yes, my post-pregnancy hormones had me crying at the thought of leaving my son longer than an hour. But, I also had a hunch about my future reality in the workforce.

The only women in vice president or higher roles in my office were those without spouses or children. Graying middle-aged men filled the upper management spots. With a baby in my arms, I wasn’t seeing much hope for a long, profitable career to support a family of three.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office backed my suspicions. Women are still lagging behind in holding management positions. We are making less than our male counterparts. And even worse, mothers in management roles are paid even less than women without kids in the same job.

The bottom line is simple: despite an increasingly level playing ground, women are not considered equal to men in the workplace. Each gender may have their own bathrooms – and mothers may be permitted to pump breast milk at the office – but at the end of the workweek, his paycheck is greater than hers.

When I gave my notice, my voice cracked. And before handed in my security badge, I glanced longingly at the photo that had been snapped of the 22-year old version of myself.

When I graduated from college, I thought that while barriers to my corporate success may exist, if I worked hard enough, I could surpass them. Studying the women’s liberation movement and being the daughter of a young, hard-working office assistant/part-time hippie taught me that.

What I underestimated though was that I was stepping into a workforce that – over the long term – valued my male co-workers more than me.

However, that fact became glaringly obvious as when I looked at the raw salary predictions for my husband and me. I worked in Corporate Communications as a writer; he was in sales – a male-dominated career – for a large mutual fund company. I was at the top of my pay grade; he was at the bottom of his. While my salary was higher today, it probably wasn’t going to increase much more.

Even if I didn’t have a baby, government-sponsored study after study has led me to believe I’m destined to make less than my male co-workers no matter how hard I work.

Women are making less money because we are still primary caretakers at home. Trying to integrate a family into a career means working less hours, being distracted when day care or nanny is calling about your barfing baby and – when your child care is not calling – wondering why you are at work and not at the park with your quickly growing child. All of this equals less pay.

As I write this today in 2010, it seems so ridiculous: My husband – by virtue of his gender and societal norms – has a greater potential to make more money in his career than I do. We have a better chance of owning a house one day, giving Harrison the opportunity to take music lessons and play on a soccer team, and taking a yearly family vacation with my husband keeping his feet planted in the corporate world.

Our decision ended up not being a choice at all. We fell squarely into the gender stereotypes that the report’s statistics re-inforce: a man’s work is monetarily worth more than a woman’s.

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