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.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.