A new study about women’s finances from Merrill Lynch/Bank of America and Age Wave will no doubt turn into unhelpful fodder in the broader discussion about the gender wage gap and wealth gap between the genders that is the result.
While most of the study is about the need to understand women better as financial consumers and investors — certainly a business priority for financial institutions — one section drives home the point that when women have a “temporary interruption” in their careers, they suffer a permanent setback in terms of earnings and wealth accumulation.
This may be true, but activists should not seize on this point as evidence of an oppressive society or unhappy women. To the contrary, we all know what “temporary interruption” means, at least in the vast majority of cases: children. And children can bring great joy.
Motherhood has for too long been the elephant in the room when the issue of the pay equality comes up. But recently, for better or worse, advocates for equal pay arefocusing on motherhood, often using the term “motherhood penalty.”
Perhaps the term is better and more intellectually honest than the blunt “wage gap,” because it acknowledges that sex-based wage discrimination isn’t primarily responsible for the wage gap. Differences between men and women's lives — the roles they take on in the working world and in families — are the real root of differences in earnings.
But “Motherhood Penalty” is worse in another sense: It depicts mothers as helpless victims and ignores the tremendous benefits of motherhood that women often choose to embrace in exchange for lower pay.
Like many women, I am living this reality: In 2014, I was a single, childless woman. Today, I am married, have a toddler, and a new baby on the way. I know firsthand the challenge of balancing my responsibilities at work and at home, especially as my husband has been completing a medical residency — a demanding pursuit.
As I’ve walked my path, I’ve walked with other women who today have more time to dedicate to their jobs, but who may never know the joy of having children. Motherhood likely doesn’t seem like much of a “penalty” to many of them who wish to have children, but rather, an amazing and enviable blessing.
Ultimately, a more neutral term than either “penalty” or “blessing” would be “trade-off.” I don’t get to go to happy hour as often or attend the work conference in another city. I could do those things, but I choose not to in favor of bedtime snuggles instead. I may pay a price in terms of career enhancement, but for me, it's worth it. Other working moms make a variety of choices that differ from mine; each of us is simply doing what we think is best for our families and ourselves.
Here’s another consideration: While I’ve been “leaning out” at work recently, my husband has been making his own trade-offs: He’s had less than his share of bedtime snuggles, certainly. He’s worked very, very hard. And we both now get to enjoy the fruits of our shared labor, as he finishes residency and begins working in a well-paid hospitalist job this fall.
My story isn’t just anecdote: Among all demographic groups, who makes the most money? Married fathers. This isn't because society values them more, but because they often make sacrifices to try to earn more to support their families. And who shares household earnings and the associated wealth accumulation with married fathers? Married mothers, of course. The term “motherhood penalty” fails to capture this. Married motherhood comes with great benefits, both financial and non-financial.
The reality is that mothers are paid less than non-mothers (and accumulate less wealth as a result) not because employers or “society” penalize us, but because, on aggregate, mothers make trade-offs that result in less money. This leaves us “worse off” — but only in the eyes of those who value monetary earnings above other things, like spending time with children, volunteering, or other unpaid pursuits.
For financial institutions like Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, it makes perfect sense to frame things this way, with the focus on money. But the real takeaway from their new study should not be that women are victims, but rather (as the premise of the study recognizes) that women and men, as individuals and as groups, make different choices.
No matter how we slice the data — with a focus on parents or non-parents, wages or wealth — the result will always be disparities that reflect those choices. We should all work to maximize opportunity and ensure fairness, but we can do so while appreciating that what one person may call a “penalty,” another may call “the pursuit of happiness.”