Money·7 min read

Women at Work: Mommy-Tracking, the Pay Gap, and How to Stay Visible While WFH

How to Stay Visible While WFH
Illustration: Vanessa Lovegrove
September 9, 2021

The Story

ICYMI: the pandemic was rough on women. (Hi, shecession.) Millions dropped out of the workforce, erasing years of progress toward gender economic equality.

So where do we go from here?

Stacey Vanek Smith has some (well-researched) ideas. As host of the NPR podcast "The Indicator from Planet Money" and author of "Machiavelli For Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace," she's read more than 100 papers on topics ranging from pay to sexual harassment to being interrupted. And has interviewed real women and experts across the country about their advice and experiences. Here's what she said.

What's one of the biggest issues women face at work today?

There aren’t enough women in top positions. Women make up more than half of students in law school, half of medical school students, and more than half of college students. And yet, nearly 80% of CEOs are (white) men. When women do get top positions, they are too often in companies that are failing or struggling.

A lack of diversity and inclusion has enormous effects on the workplace and on the whole economy. Women start about 40% of businesses in the US, but only get about 2% of venture capital funding. About 17% of Black women are starting businesses right now, but most of those businesses will likely fail largely because of a lack of funding.

In the workplace, the same thing happens on a micro-level. The ideas of people of color and women and other marginalized workers are being overlooked and ignored. These are ideas that would likely make the workplace more inclusive and innovative. Companies are stronger when they have more diverse leadership.

You dedicate an entire section of your book to the "motherhood penalty" and how a woman's career can be negatively impacted once she has children. How can someone avoid "mommy-tracking"?

Mothers are paid less, promoted more slowly, and their work is viewed more critically. What’s worse, a lot of this discrimination comes cloaked in concern about this new chapter of life. People often think they are doing new mothers a favor by keeping them off of demanding projects and giving them lower-profile roles that will allow them more time with their children.

What you can do: Have a conversation with your boss before you go on maternity leave. Talk about projects you want to be on after you come back. Make it clear your job will be your priority when you return to work (even if it won’t or if you don’t know).

What employers can do: If you have a worker who is about to go on parental leave, talk with them first. Ask about what they want for their job moving forward and what the plan will be when they come back from leave. Offering a flexible work situation is something that will help many women enormously. Also, if you are tempted to keep a new parent off of a project or “ease them back into work,” check with them about it. Yes, they might be really grateful for the easier lift, but they might not be. Mommy-tracking tends to happen with the best of intentions, so make sure you are not unintentionally marginalizing someone.

Why hasn't the pay gap been closed?

This is a mystery. A very costly mystery. The pay gap has been stuck for more than a decade. The lack of progress has serious consequences: Women are far more likely to live below the poverty line when they retire. This is even more extreme for women of color and LGBTQ workers.

What you can do: Ask for more money. Right now is a perfect time to do this. Employers are scrambling to find workers to fill jobs, and many are offering more money and more flexibility in order to keep workers or attract them into new positions. Go to your manager and ask for what you want – both in terms of more money and the work situation that would be ideal for you.

What employers can do: One big part of the pay gap has to do with childcare. Often, women will choose less-demanding jobs or part-time work in order to accommodate childcare, and this often means they get paid less. The biggest thing companies and managers can do right now is offer women some flexibility at work.

What lawmakers can do: On the policy level, one solution is greater pay transparency. In the UK, the government implemented a policy requiring businesses of a certain size to publicly report on their pay gap. This has actually improved the gender pay gap very quickly.

Also, childcare options are very important. Giving women options (better parental leave policies, subsidized childcare, etc.) would be a huge step in supporting working women.

Is there ever a bad time to ask for more money?

Don’t ask for a raise when you’re angry or have just found out that Ralph – your inept coworker with fewer years of experience – makes $20,000 more than you. You don’t want anger or sadness to be the dominant emotion when asking for a raise. It will cloud your ability to negotiate.

Of course, if you just found out what Ralph makes, that is extremely valuable information, and you want to use it in your negotiation. But wait until the emotion (or the most intense phase of that emotion) has passed. Instead, use the energy boost the anger provides to fuel your homework.

When you go into a negotiation, you want to be excited and collaborative, and you want to present a vision of your path at this company. Hopefully, this is a vision that will inspire you and your manager. Part of that vision involves what you will need (money, title, etc.) to do your best work and feel properly valued. And then throw in that you’ve done your market research and you know the range this company pays – or what other companies pay – for this position.

How can women continue to grow their careers and stay visible while WFH?

The virtual workplace has upsides and downsides. Everyone, no matter their position, is just a little square on a screen. The risk is that people who don’t speak up will truly be lost. Interruptions can be harder on Zoom because the software might silence you if someone else starts speaking.

It’s so easy for people to fall through the cracks if they’re really struggling. You’re not seeing them in an office, and there can be less of an inclination to offer to help or ask someone to coffee. The solution for this should come from management – making sure people speak up and are given a space to speak. That those who are quiet in meetings are checked in on to make sure they’re getting the support they need.

On an individual level, something called "amplification" can be very effective. This is a solution recommended by Dr. Tina Opie, a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School. Dr. Opie learned the amplification strategy from an article about women in the Obama administration. Their ideas weren’t gaining momentum in the ultra-cutthroat White House, so they teamed up to create a solution. One woman would make a point in a meeting and, immediately, another woman would repeat the idea and commend it...And voilà! The original idea gets said, repeated, supported, and amplified.

Another thing you can do is to speak up for your colleagues if they are interrupted or if their ideas are dismissed. Often, women are looked at critically if they speak up for themselves, but this is not an issue when women speak up on behalf of other people. People admire women who are assertive, as long as they are not being assertive for themselves. Also, this is a very powerful way to start establishing yourself as a leader.

One last tip: a great advantage of Zoom is the one-on-one meeting. You can easily schedule a one-on-one meeting with a boss, and you will have center stage. That’s probably a lot more attention than you would have gotten trying to meet in an office, with ringing phones and people rushing in and out.

Psst...this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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