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Inequality Among Working Mothers: The Dream Lives of the Elite & Struggles of the Proletariat

By Mathilde Ngo Mbom

Over forty years following the first International Women’s Day celebration in 1975, a great deal of progress has been made in the fight for women’s rights, including in the United States. The results are noticeable: women are outnumbering men in American universities with an enrolment in undergraduate studies accounting for over 55% of total enrolment in 2014 compared to less than 30% in 1970. In the corporate world, the share of women heading Fortune 500 companies increased from 0.2% in 1996 to 5.4% in 2017, and in the political sphere, the percentage of women in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have risen from as little as 2% in 1965 to over 19% in 2017.

While progress could be faster, Alison Wolf, a British economist and social policy wonk, believes that this advancement “has created a far less equal world” among women. She noted that while more work is being done to narrow the gender gap, the inequality among women themselves is getting much less attention. On one hand, there is a minority of women who seem to have it all: they are highly educated, occupy top positions in organizations and seem to be successful in the work-family challenge. On the other hand, there is a majority of women who struggle to get by: they are less educated, occupy traditionally female jobs and are mostly impacted by poor US family policies. Women in these two groups who are mothers exhibit the social inequality experienced by modern working mothers in America.

How Working Women View Having Children Based on their Level of Education

To start, highly educated women seem to be moving away from childlessness faster than the women with lower educational attainment. Using US Census data, the Pew Research Center determined that 5% less American women aged 40 to 44 holding at least a Bachelor’s Degree remained childless. This is a steep figure when compared to a decrease of 1 to 3% among women with at most a high school-level or partial college education.


Moreover, while the common family size across all levels of education remains to be two children, more educated women are likely to have three children or more. Rather than just being defined by their work, more highly-educated women are indeed embracing motherhood. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of mothers aged 40 to 44 holding a postgraduate degree between 1994 and 2014 has increased from 22% to 27%.


In addition, highly educated mothers get to spend more time with their offspring compared to women with a lower educational attainment. Giuila Dotti Sani, the 2017-18 Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, and Judith Treas, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Demographic and Social Analysis at the University of California, analyzed how much time mothers and fathers spent on childcare between 1965-2012 in 11 Western countries including the United States. While mothers in 1965 spent the same amount of time with their children regardless of economic background, educated mothers in 2012 spent at least 29 minutes more daily with their children.

Why has the Motherhood Penalty Not Prevented Many Elite Women From Having Children?

The motherhood penalty refers to systematic disadvantages in compensation that working mothers encounter relative to childless women. According to the December 2016 issue of the American Sociological Review, the motherhood penalty can reach an average of 10% for highly skilled, well paid Caucasian women compared to an average of 4-7% for white women with fewer skills and/or less wages.  Given this hurdle, it would seem rational for highly educated women to bear fewer children. However, their comparative wealth means they can afford the childcare costs that are represented in the motherhood penalty. The Pew Research Center reported that the share of childcare costs of American working mothers earning at least $4,500 a month was only 6.7% of their family income compared to a share of 39.6% of the family income of US working mothers earning less than $1,500 a month.

Which Group of Working Mothers Needs More Help?

Gender politics sees women as a group with common interests and demands, when in reality, statistics demonstrate economic, social and cultural diversity. At the top of the economic hierarchy is the minority of working mothers that have successful professional careers; while at the bottom of the pyramid lies a large portion of working mothers who are struggling to balance the costs of motherhood with insufficient compensation. Because of their comparative wealth, highly educated women are able to enjoy the benefits of motherhood more than women with a lower level of education, demonstrated by their retreat from childlessness.

While initiatives such as the 30% Club (a campaign which goal is to achieve a minimum of 30% women sitting on boards of public companies) promotes executive feminism - objectively a good thing - more activism that targets middle-class women is essential so that women from all social and educational strata can equally benefit from the gains of the women’s rights movement.


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