The pay discrepancy between men and women has been an ongoing conversation for years. While there are numerous reports of women getting paid less than their male counterparts for the exact same job, the gender pay gap isn't always so straight forward. In fact, it's a pretty complex, nuanced issue with numerous factors that are issues in and of themselves.
For example, men and women tend to enter different fields, they often negotiate differently, there are employer biases, and — here's a big one — there's the “motherhood tax." According to Pew Research from 2015 data, “roughly four-in-ten mothers said that at some point in their work life they had taken a significant amount of time off (39%) or reduced their work hours (42%) to care for a child or other family member. Roughly a quarter (27%) said they had quit work altogether to take care of these familial responsibilities."
It probably won't come as a surprise to learn that Pew Research went on to find that these numbers were remarkably lower for men. Just 24% of fathers indicated that they took significant time off to care for a child or family member, 28% reduced work hours, and 10% quit a job.
It's not all bad news however, with lots of female-founded companies sprouting to address the issues outlined here, including Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean's Werk, which hopes to stimulate flexibility within the work week. There is also increased pressure on the government to initiate statewide programmes to help women taking maternity leave or making the transition back to work.
This boils down to a couple things: persistent gender roles and perceived societal norms, and the current, unforgiving employer structure for maternity leave. Curious about how maternity leave has affected their careers, we asked three high-level career women point blank: what did maternity leave look like for you? We also asked them to share advice for current and future pregnant women. Here's what they told us.
Holly Caplan: Author on Women's Workplace Issues
After climbing the corporate ladder and finding great success in her career, Holly Caplan realized that she'd become, in her words, “a dick."
This personality shift, she explains, was the result of a need to acclimate and survive in a male-dominated workspace. She eventually realized that corporate world wasn't for her — this happened after she had her baby at age 40 — and has since gone on to author books about women in the workplace. Her most recent book is titled Surviving the Dick Clique: A Girl's Guide to Surviving the Male Dominated Corporate World.
Caplan was a regional manager with a team of eight sales representatives when she became pregnant. She tasked one of her top sales reps to cover for her while on maternity leave and resumed her original role upon return.
“I took eight weeks as allowed by my company at the time, and I took one more week of my personal vacation in order to have nine weeks. Looking back, I could have taken more maternity leave with my vacation hours, but was afraid to do so. I didn't want to lose anymore time away from the company, and I was afraid of what my colleagues and upper level management would think. I was concerned they would see me as not dedicated and that I could potentially lose my 'edge' by becoming a mother," she recalled. “Regarding how it impacted my pay, I lost 40% of my salary while I was out. Maternity leave is considered the same as part time disability. I had to fill out paperwork not based on maternity leave, but to receive part time disability pay. Which was kind of ironic to me, because having baby is a natural ability, and not a disability. When I voiced my opinions to HR, I was quickly told 'It is what it is.'"
Though the role was still there for her when she returned, she told SWAAY that it wasn't an easy transition back into the office. She was sleep deprived and recalled that her mind wasn't as sharp as it had been when working full time before giving birth. Fortunately, her company was supportive in her return and understood it would take a few weeks for her to re-assimilate. Despite some of the difficulties however, Caplan said that becoming a mother, and taking maternity leave, gave her a new perspective.
“It taught me not to sweat the small stuff. After all, I had just given birth, survived nine weeks of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and all the other life lessons that come with early motherhood," says Caplan. "I also think it made me a better manager because I became more attentive, thoughtful and forgiving."
Her advice for others is to fully understand your company's policy on maternity leave salary so you can plan financially in advance. Having a baby increases spending, she said, but maternity leave pay does not allows allow you to comfortably absorb this new expense. She also advised asking what your company expects from you in return, and to ask all the tough questions. Solidify as much as possible before you leave, and communicate with the person who's taking over your responsibilities.
Allison Robinson: CEO of The Mom Project
The Mom Project is a destination for career-oriented women — specifically working mothers — that aims to redefine the path to professional success. Robinson founded the company after having her first child in 2015 and has had two children since.
“For my first, I was still with P&G and had the good fortune to be able to take several months off. I never ended up returning from my first maternity leave, and that was actually when I founded The Mom Project," she told SWAAY. “For my second son, however, I was in the midst of fundraising for our first round of venture capital for The Mom Project, so my leave looked quite a bit different and I was emailing from the hospital. As CEO, I delegated as many responsibilities I could to my incredibly competent team."
Ultimately, she said that motherhood was the best thing for her career, as it served as the catalyst for founding her business. That said, she acknowledges that taking the entrepreneurial route might not always work out for others, and that motherhood — along with other factors such as cognitive biases, rigid structures, and the lack of female leadership advocating for other women — can certainly affect a woman's career-related progress.
In terms of transitioning into and out of maternity leave, she said, “Be honest and transparent with your boss about your needs. If you're not getting the support you need, start looking for new opportunities."
Sandy Smith: President of Smith Publicity
Sandy Smith is currently the president of Smith Publicity, but when she had her first child she served as marketing manager at a 300+ employee company that was part of a Fortune 100 company. “For my first child, I went on maternity leave for three months. Someone covered for me, but my job was 100 percent waiting for me when I returned. It helped I was with the company for many years before having the baby," she said. “Luckily for me, it did not impact my career or opportunities at the job I had. I went back and was even offered additional responsibility and opportunities soon after returning. My job and boss were exactly the same in terms of support and how I was treated."
Upon return, Smith's grandparents cared for her daughter through her and her husband's long work days. She said, “I was always tired in those early days, but I tried not to let it show at work. These were the days before flexible hours and work from home were common."
“Luckily for me, it did not impact my career or opportunities at the job I had. I went back and was even offered additional responsibility and opportunities soon after returning. My job and boss were exactly the same in terms of support and how I was treated." -Sandy Smith
Though she'd originally gone back to work, her maternity leave helped her realize that she wanted a different life as a parent.
“My husband was offered a new job in a new state. We decided to move, that I would stay home with my daughter, and we'd live on one income. It was not easy, but I'd do it again," she said. “We had a second child three years later, and I stayed home for eight years total before slowly re-entering the work world. I started working for my job, Smith Publicity, in 2005 part-time and within two years became the vice president and then later the president." Smith's advice to other women is to remain as organized as possible for a “change of hands" toward the end of your pregnancy, to check in socially and in regard to work with colleagues while you're away, and to keep your skillset sharp.
“When taking a long break — even with no specific return plan — keep skills as current as possible. There are a ton of free or inexpensive webinars, podcasts, blogs, and books for all industries. Education is never wasted," she said.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."