I was pretty stunned over the weekend when I read an article that said that the gender=based wage gap is an issue for White House staffers. Women reportedly make more than $9000 less than male White House staffers. This, despite all of Obama’s promises to make some changes at the top.

The wage gap isn’t just an issue for White House staffers, though. It still permeates both American and European societies. Full-time working women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that full-time working men make. (This doesn’t take into account, of course, the unpaid labor that women perform in the home.)

There are several contributing factors to the wage gap. According to the European Commission on Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities:

Frequently women earn less than men for doing jobs of equal value. One of the main causes is the way women’s competences are valued compared to men’s. Jobs requiring similar skills, qualifications or experience tend to be poorly paid and undervalued when they are dominated by women rather than by men. For example, the (mainly female) cashiers in a supermarket usually earn less than the (mainly male) employees involved in stacking shelves and other more physical tasks.

Maternity accounts for some of the wage gap. According to a new study out of the UK, pregnancy and motherhood has a very strong negative impact on women’s wages.

  • Before becoming parents, men and women are equally likely to be employed but childbirth marks the start of a great divide which continues even after children have left home. Just over half (57%) of mothers with children under 5 are in paid work compared to nine tenths of fathers.
  • Even those women working full time experience a pay penalty – partnered women without dependent children earn 9% less than men on average but for mothers with two children working full time the pay gap is 21.6%.
  • Pregnancy can make women particularly vulnerable to discrimination. During the recent downturn there has been a marked increase in the numbers of women seeking help because they believe they have experienced pregnancy related discrimination.

On a related note, a recent article in the American Bar Association Journal says that women who take time off for motherhood are hurting their careers:

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch thinks women who take time off for family are making a risky career move.

Speaking to Human Resource Management at its annual conference on June 28, Welch said women who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if they are “not there in the clutch,” the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) reports.

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” Welch said. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

Welch said women who take time off can still “have a nice career,” but their chances of reaching the top are smaller, according to the Wall Street Journal account. “We’d love to have more women moving up faster,” he said. “But they’ve got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one.”

That’s easy for Welch to say – no one ever assumes that men with children will have to make a choice between their careers or their families. What do you think – does motherhood hurt women’s careers? Do you think biology is to blame for the wage gap? And do you think Obama will give women who work at the White House their dues? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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