Americans will spend an average of $180 per person on Mother’s Day gifts this year. Popular gifts include the usual jewelry, flowers, and perfume – but many moms say they would prefer an “experience.” What tired, stressed out mom wouldn’t enjoy a fancy dinner out at her favorite restaurant or a pampering day at the spa? But is that really what most women dream about when they lie down after a long day of work and parenting?
Most women I know have much bigger things on their mind. For instance, how can I afford to stay home with my sick child tomorrow? Where am I going to get the money to pay for after-school care? Who is going to pick the kids up from school if I am assigned an extra shift? The average $180 Mother’s Day gift amounts to more than 20 hours of salary for working moms earning the federal minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. What keeps her awake at night is worrying about how she can afford to juggle all her responsibilities as a working mom.
Mother’s Day is a hallowed tradition in the American psyche. President Woodrow Wilson was the first U.S. President to officially recognize the second Sunday of May as a holiday celebrating mothers in 1914. Since then, it has been customary for Presidents to issue a proclamation recognizing the unique contributions mothers make to our society. President Donald J. Trump honored that tradition by proclaiming May 14, 2017 as Mother’s Day, expressing “deep appreciation for the strength and spirit of mothers and their resolve to do what is right for their children and families…”. Trump’s statement said nothing about the role of women as workers, instead focusing on their role as selfless caretakers.
Some of Trump’s predecessors have been more open to recognizing the challenges faced by the vast majority of mothers in this country who work outside their homes while raising families. For example, President Barack Obama’s 2012 proclamation recognized that “the success of women in our economy is essential to the success of our families, our communities, and our country.” Early in his presidency, he created the White House Council on Women and Girls to ensure that federal policy considered the needs of women and girls, and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to ensure women the right to pursue equal pay for equal work.
President George W. Bush noted in his 2001 proclamation, “Many American families are now headed solely by women, and these women should enormous responsibilities.” He went on to propose stronger support and assistance to these mothers, including job training, early childhood education, and affordable child care.
Most mothers I know are unwilling to go back to the days when their primary value to society is in nurturing children and spouses. Women have been playing an important role in public life for decades, and they long for laws and policies that give them the freedom to pursue professional fulfillment while also providing high quality education and care for their children. On behalf of working mothers everywhere, here is a wish list for Congress and state lawmakers.
1. Raise the Minimum Wage
Millions of women, especially women of color, struggle to support themselves and their families on poverty wages. Women comprise wo-thirds of workers making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and two-thirds of tipped workers making $2.13 per hour. They are doing the undervalued work that we all depend on – serving us food in restaurants, taking care of our children, and cleaning our homes. Yet, a woman with two children working full-time at minimum wage earns just $14,500 a year, putting her family well below the poverty line.
What would be better than a night out on the town for these working moms? How about a 110% pay raise? That is what millions of working women would get if Congress passed the Raise the Wage Act. This law would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the Raise the Wage Act would provide a pay raise for 44.6 percent of working single mothers, and benefit 19 million children across the United States. Now that is something to celebrate.
2. Close the Gender Pay Gap
In 2017, Americans spent $50 more on gifts for Mother’s Day than they did for Father’s Day. This amounts to a 26% gender gift gap in favor of moms. Yet in 2016, women working full time in the United States were paid just 80 percent of what men were paid, a gap of 20 percent. The gap is even larger for women of color (54% for Hispanic or Latinas, and 63% for Black or African Americans). At the rate things are changing, women will not close this gap until 2059.
What would it take to value moms as workers as much as we value them as caregivers? The gender pay gap is a complex problem, caused in part by different choices men and women make in their careers, and in part by persistent discrimination and bias. Parenting also plays an important role. More mothers than fathers take time away from the workforce or cut back their hours to raise children. When they return to work full-time, these mothers may encounter a “motherhood penalty” that adversely affects hiring, pay, and promotion decisions.
Three pending bills awaiting Congressional action would show working mothers that we value their contributions to public life. The Paycheck Fairness Act would update and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to close existing loopholes and strengthen penalties for equal pay violations. The Pay Equity for All Act would ban employers from using salary history to determine future pay, a practice that disadvantages women who have been underpaid throughout their careers. The Fair Pay Act would require employers to provide equal pay for work of equivalent value, benefitting women in female-dominated jobs that have been undervalued in the marketplace. This package of pay equity laws would make a meaningful difference in the lives of working moms.
3. Provide Paid Parental Leave
The United States is the only industrialized country that does not provide job-protected paid leave following the birth of a child. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides qualifying workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave that they can use following the birth or adoption of a child, as well as to care for sick relatives or their own serious health condition. This was a great start back in 1993, but not nearly enough to help many working parents. More than 40 percent of private sector workers do not qualify for FMLA leave, and even those who qualify often cannot afford to take the unpaid time off. For a country that values motherhood, this is not an adequate policy.
Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) made headlines when she became the first senator to give birth while serving in the United States Senate. She used that occasion as a platform to argue for Congress to “get real on paid leave.” Ninety-eight countries provide women with at least 14 weeks of paid leave surrounding the birth of a child. The FAMILY Act sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would guarantee workers 12 weeks of paid leave for childbirth or adoption (or one’s own or a relative’s serious medical condition). That is the least we can do to honor our country’s commitment to working moms.
4. Pave the Way to Accessible and Affordable Child Care
Ask any working mom, finding high-quality affordable child care is nearly impossible. This forces some families to string together a hodgepodge of neighbors, family members, and low-wage workers to take care of their children so they can go to work. It even keeps some moms out of the workplace altogether. What if we showed how much we value the contributions of working moms by making sure they have a safe place to send their kids while they work?
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) have introduced legislation to make child care more affordable and accessible to low-income and middle-class families. The Child Care for Working Families Act would limit child care payments to 7 percent of a family’s income while boosting wages for child care teachers. It would double the number of children eligible for subsidized care and build the supply of child care in underserved areas. Most important to working moms, it would make investments to improve the quality of child care programs.
5. End Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
It is difficult enough for many women to juggle the responsibilities of parenting and career. What makes it almost unbearable is the rampant discrimination and harassment women face in the workplace. Women’s frustration with the blatant misogyny of the Trump campaign erupted in a social media explosion of stories about rampant sexual harassment in the workplace. Beginning with high-profile accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, thousands of women began sharing their stories under the hashtag #MeToo. The accused include actors, directors, celebrity chefs, musicians, news anchors, journalists, politicians, and business executives. Dozens of the country’s most powerful men have lost their jobs or resigned from political office as a result of the scandal.
Of course, sexual harassment is not limited to elite professions. The #TimesUp movement recognizes that sexual misconduct is rampant against low-wage workers on farms, factories, restaurants, and domestic settings. In fact, nearly half of working women in the United States say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Sexual harassment is illegal, but many women decide not to report it. Some are ashamed or afraid they will not be believed, others may fear retaliation. The current controversy around President Trump’s alleged payments to Stormy Daniels have also surfaced the reality that many women are silenced by so-called “hush agreements” or forced arbitration clauses. More than half of American workers are subject to mandatory arbitration, which keeps victims of sexual assault from discussing their cases publicly or taking them to court.
The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act introduced by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif) would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in employment agreements and free women up to speak publicly about their abuse. However, legislation alone is unlikely to solve the workplace harassment crisis. Ending sexual misconduct will require concerted action by all the fathers, partners, and sons in the workplace to treat other women the same way they would want their own mother to be treated. That would be the greatest Mother’s Day gift of all for most working women.