New report shows how the “pregnancy penalty” drives economic inequality

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Single mother of two Armanda Legros after a rally for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. (Photo credit: A Better Balance)

A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization in New York City, has a new report explaining how the “bias and inflexibility towards women in the workplace that starts when they become pregnant and snowballs into lasting economic disadvantages” is driving gender inequality and overall economic inequality in the city:

Despite advances in gender equality over the past 40 years, women continue to jeopardize their livelihoods simply by having children. The pregnancy penalty helps to explain why mothers as a whole continue to earn five to six percent less than non-mothers, and why historically disadvantaged women, single mothers and black women, have seen their wage penalties rise sharply since 1977. In New York City, single, childless women under age 35 earn 96 cents for every dollar men earn, whereas women between the ages of 35 and 65, who are likely to have children, earn only 78 cents to the dollar. Over the course of a lifetime, women earn only 38 percent of their male counterparts. The pregnancy penalty also explains why poverty and gender are so closely linked. In New York City, nearly 40 percent of households headed by single mothers with children under 18 live in poverty. Nationwide, women over 65 are twice as likely as men their age to be living in poverty. When caregiving pushes women out of the workforce during their prime earning years, it derails their earnings and hampers their ability to put food on the table and make ends meet. In the long-term, it imperils their career prospects and social security payments, leaving them impoverished in their golden years.

As the report notes, “while women’s exits from, or lack of advancement within, the workforce have historically been framed as ‘choices,'” that is just laughable when you look at how thoroughly we fail to support working families in this country and how, when push comes to shove, child care continues to fall to women. The pregnancy penalty, the report argues, is the result of both “blatant discrimination” against pregnant workers (remember how that still happens?) and lack of workplace policies–like paid family leave and flexible schedules–to make it easier to juggle both a job and children at the same time–particularly for poor families.

Indeed, while all mothers face a penalty, low-income workers are hit hardest. For these women, “each new child brings a pay penalty of fifteen percent, compared to four percent for higher-wage earning mothers.” Since low-wage workers tend to have unpredictable hourse over which they have little to no control, and often can’t afford the high cost of child care, many–often single mothers–are forced to cut back to part-time or drop out of the workforce altogether. That kind of interruption isn’t just a temporary setback–it affects their future earnings and long-term financial stability. “Such breaks in workforce participation that are not accompanied by additional schooling are the single greatest contributor to the motherhood wage penalty.”

Consequently, the pregnancy penalty keeps families on the treadmill of poverty, driving overall economic inequality–which is reaching truly outrageous levels in New York City and across the country. As the report notes, New Yorkers are seeing “the middle class vanishing before their eyes.” A Better Balance calls for NYC to be “a laboratory for equality” by enacting a number of policy solutions, including better enforcement of the city’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which has been in effect for a year now, legislation to address workplace discrimination toward caregivers, protections for nursing workers, flexible schedules for all, expanded paid family leave, as well as affordable child care and a higher minimum wage. Cosigned.

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Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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