Opinion

Why our homes — not offices — are largely responsible for the gender pay gap

Husbands, it's time to really start supporting your wives' careers

We're half a century from President Kennedy's passing of the Equal Pay Act and women still continue to earn less than men. While some of this is still due to good old-fashioned sexism, the bulk of the gap is a casualty of motherhood.

Studies show that women make nearly the same amount as men right out of college, but the gap increases as they reach middle-age and take on more family responsibilities. Each child a woman has results in a 3 percent wage penalty, while fathers get a 6 percent boost. Also, mothers tend to earn less than women without children, a gap that hasn't budged for 30 years.

The easy explanation here is that we should all stop worrying about sexism because mothers must want to focus more on their families. Why else would they choose to dial back their careers? Except wanting something and choosing something are not always the same thing. Choices, especially in regards to our families, are more often a result of taking the path of least resistance — because who has time to resist with a toddler running around? — rather than doing what a woman actually wants. Now, a new study from Harvard Business School shows us just how much of this resistance comes from husbands.

The researchers interviewed 25,000 male and female graduates from Harvard Business School, covering baby boomers (ages 49-67), Generation X (ages 32-48), and millennials (ages 26-31). They discovered not only a wage and achievement gap, as anticipated, but also a sizable expectations gap.

Among the graduates with full-time jobs, men are more likely to hold more senior positions, have more responsibility, and manage more employees. Makes sense, then, that about 50 percent to 60 percent of men across generations say they are very satisfied with their careers, vs. 40 percent to 50 percent of women. The cause of this, according to 77 percent of interviewees — 73 percent of men and 85 percent of women — is that women prioritize family over work.

The problem wasn't that women began their careers wanting less, and it wasn't because they decided to "opt out;" in fact, only 11 percent left the workforce to care for children full-time. Instead, the main obstacle these women faced is that they had different expectations from the men they married. The vast majority of women began their careers believing their work would be considered equally important to their husbands'. Unfortunately, more than half of Gen X and baby boomer men said they assumed their careers would come first. Also, half of both men and women thought the women would be the primary caregiver, but two-thirds of women ended up doing so.

Things are looking a little better for millennial woman, if not totally promising. Three-quarters of these women think their careers will be at least as important as their partners' and only 42 percent of them believe they will handle the majority of the child care. On the other hand, half of these men believe their own careers will take priority and two-thirds of them expect their partner to handle all the childcare.

In recent years, we've seen a large increase in how much time fathers spend with their children (and mothers, it's worth noting), as well as a rise in the amount of stress they feel about not spending enough time with their children. So the question is not whether fathers are starting to take on more responsibility, because they are, but whether or not this shift is large enough or fast enough to make our households more equal in the foreseeable future. According to the data, fathers are still much more likely than mothers to say they want to work full time, and are less likely than women to seek flexibility in their jobs. Mothers, on the other hand, need this flexibility so they can continue doing double the housework and childcare than their husbands do.

While better work/life policies like family leave and flexible workplaces will certainly help move us towards more egalitarian households, we also need to work on getting men to think and feel the same way as many women do. In addition to encouraging more women to stand their ground in their domestic arrangements and demand more from their husbands, we also should encourage men to break old (and by old, I mean millennia-old) habits.

Paternity leave is an important step, one proven to increase fathers' involvement with their children for the long run and boost their wives' future earnings. Though, as we've seen in other countries, merely offering men time-off to spend with their families isn't enough: we've got to encourage them to take it. And let's not stop with the early years, which helps but has its limits as long as moms are taking off more time, but also think about getting fathers to spend more time with their children as they grow up.

In Israel, some large business are taking part in a program called "Putting the Family at the Center" that lets fathers leave at 4 p.m. twice a week in order to be with their children. According to those involved, it has not hurt productivity — just less time for Facebook and reading the news — and allows fathers to get in the rhythm of worrying about after-school pick-up and dinner. This year, the German vice-chancellor, who is probably busier than many of us, declared he was taking Wednesday afternoons off to be with his daughter. He said that politicians need to spend time with their family, "otherwise we don't know what normal life is like."

The German magazine Der Spiegel praised this decision, saying, "The days when only childless female politicians like Angela Merkel could make it to the top are over." Words that I imagine could instill some hope in all those frustrated female Harvard Business School grads.

Image courtesy GraphicaArtis/Corbis

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