Mothers, Fathers, and the Wage Gap


Women’s income potential — and achievement — is a big issue given that most of us build our wealth primarily from our income, and many women are under-earning their potential. The gender wage gap stands strong at 78%, despite best efforts to narrow it.

While we encourage women to be pro-active and negotiate higher salaries, it can get a little tricky for women who ask for more money, and recognition, for their work.

Some studies show that when women do ask for a raise they can be penalized because of entrenched ideas about gender roles in society that are at odds with women’s growing role in the workplace. How we think about money is greatly impacted by social ideas and constructs — as we always say in this space, money is always about more than just money.

When women negotiate salaries, “It basically violates the expectations about how we think women are supposed to be,” said Linda Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a leading researcher on women and pay negotiations, in a New York Times article. “The literature talks about women being communal, kind, interested in others, helpful, not aggressive. When people violate expectations, there’s backlash against them.”

Women and money makes me think of the mother ideal — nurturing, self-sacrificing, going without so everyone else can have enough. Money in the workplace is a finite resource, which means if you get more, I might get less. In my financial education classes with young women, students will sometimes say that they would not ask for a raise because they would not want the company to suffer, or to take the money from someone who might need it more.

These ideas about women are not just isolated to one gender; it’s clear that the mother ideal can be pretty universal. What this means is that women have to be aware of the culture of their organization when they are asking for more money. Salary negotiations always involve an element of nuance, and understanding both the big picture, and what’s happening on the other side of the negotiating table. But women need to be even more sensitive.

The big question is, how do we teach our girls to navigate this strange world where their financial well-being might be wrapped up in how someone feels about his or her mother? Awareness of the situation is always the first step. This means on the individual level, but also on a grander scale, and with all of the press about the gender wage gap lately, the tide may begin to turn.

Some experts also recommend for women in environments that are not as supportive of strong women, that they keep careful track of their success and find clear metrics to delineate their achievements. Women in these situations can also find higher-level advocates to argue on their behalf when it’s time for a pay upgrade.

We talked recently in this space about how fathers make a difference. Specifically, that fathers can have a strong impact on their daughters’ career paths by showing confidence in their abilities in traditionally male careers. Fathers who are involved with raising their children — both boys and girls — can also help change the idea that only women can be nurturing, caring, and self-sacrificing.

So while the women’s wage gap is a complicated issue to solve, we’ve got lots of ways to work on it. I am hopeful that change will come soon, and the pay gap will ultimately become history.

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