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In the decade before 2020, the movement to advance women in the workplace focused on equal pay–but was it was the wrong target?

Gender equality was still in the distance, but women were making major professional progress. They held more degrees than men, more women were leading companies and sitting on boards, and in January 2020, there were more women than men on U.S. payrolls. Pay inequality became a natural focal point–in 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned, according to Pew Research Center analysis. It’s a cause whose progress can be readily tracked, so taking up this banner was, and is, a worthy cause.

When the pandemic razed decades of workplace advancement, however, equal pay plunged down the list of emergencies. Equal pay doesn’t make a difference when schools are closed and there’s no child care to be found and no paid time off to deal with it.

“I think the conversation on pay equality is exactly a good case study for how we’ve been duped,” said Reshma Saujani, who is an author, speaker, and the founder of Girls Who Code and The Marshall Plan for Moms. “The conversation on pay was centered around gender, when it’s really never been around gender, it’s been around the motherhood penalty.”

The motherhood penalty refers to the fact that women who have children are paid less, passed over for promotions, perceived as less competent and less committed, and often ejected from the workforce.

Saujani has written several books about women’s relationship to work, but Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think), released in March, is the first to look squarely at what doesn’t work for women at work. The book is a forceful push beyond the easily quantified problems of equal pay and representation and makes us look at who we ignored in our fight for equality in the workplace: mothers.

Author, entrepreneur and activist Reshma Saujani (Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

“In our historic march toward equality,” she writes in Pay Up, “how could we not have seen that the doors the feminist movement cracked open in the workplace were not opened nearly wide enough to let in and keep the 86% of American women who were or would become mothers in their lifetimes?”

For Saujani, “paying up” isn’t about higher salaries—in fact, salary is hardly mentioned in the book—it’s about giving women what they deserve: the ability to be a parent and do paid work. In Pay Up, Saujani calls for employers to do nine things, including offering paid parental leave and giving mothers the time they need after giving birth, in order to make work possible for mothers. Raising salaries is not one of them.

Saujani doesn’t ignore the role of money in advancing women’s position, but puts it in its place. Equal pay can’t be the end goal, demonstrated by the fact increasing wages hasn’t solved anything so far. She writes, “What does it say about our culture that I am one of the privileged women with a stable partner, a solid career, and the financial resources to hire help and run my household—and yet I am still drowning under the conflicting demands of work and raising children?”

Saujani told From Day One that public awareness of the gender pay gap didn’t even scratch the surface of what was really wrong, that the reason for the pay gap is not because of gender alone, it’s because of women’s status as caregivers. “If we had tried to focus on that, and focus on how we treat moms, I think we would have just gotten to solutions faster.”

The argument that the problem is the system–not women and not pay–has a history. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s famous essay, “While Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which calls for changes to the way work is done, was published in 2012. Her book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which calls for revision of public policy, employment practices, and gender roles, was published three years later.

In 2019, labor organizer Jenny Brown published Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work, which demonstrates, in painstaking detail, just how untenable it is to be a mother in the U.S., and why women are increasingly opting out as a result.

Less than two weeks before the Covid-19 was officially declared a pandemic, Michelle P. King, who was, at the time, Netflix’s director of inclusion, released The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers that Are Holding Women Back at Work, dissecting what our culture and our workplaces get wrong about mothers.

With Pay Up, Saujani has the advantage of striking while the iron is hot and employers are still feeling the sting of the pandemic. Of this she’s very aware. “Covid-19 has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reconfigure the equation,” she writes.

According to a McKinsey report, the effects of the pandemic on women’s careers aren’t just damaging, they’re regressive. “Without intervention to address the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women,” the report reads, “there’s a risk that progress could go into reverse.”

Saujani writes in Pay Up: “The pandemic washed away all the tenuous arrangements of work-life balance we’d all cobbled together, it also washed away the pretense that the system as it currently exists is even remotely sustainable. Our reality was finally out there, raw and exposed in broad daylight for all to see.”

What if, then, we don’t do right by mothers now that we know what we know, and can no longer look away?

Elizabeth Gedmark, VP of caregiver-advocacy group A Better Balance, told From Day One that if we refuse to change the way we work, “we’re basically sending a message to mothers across the country that all of their struggles, all of their sacrifice over the last two years, were for nothing.”

Saujani said that she’s encouraged by the new directions she sees companies taking. Employers are revising benefits packages, extending flexibility and remote work, and offering childcare support. In May 2022, the Marshall Plan for Moms formed the National Business Coalition for Child Care, an organization that recruits companies to provide child care benefits to employees. After the coalition was announced, Saujani said 130 companies signed up to learn more.

Gedmark said that this work must continue, and at a steady clip. If it doesn’t, “we’re setting our daughters, our nieces, our granddaughters up to fail. That’s not a country that any of us want to live in. It’s not a country that we want to raise our kids in or have our families in. That’s why I say it’s really just not an option. That’s why we’re fighting every single day.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter based in Richmond, Va., who writes about workplace culture and policies, hiring, DEI, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others, and has been syndicated by MSN and The Motley Fool.