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The premium women pay for flexibility

I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast late one night when I heard the most truest truth I’ve ever heard. The researcher, a woman from Harvard named Claudia Goldin, argued that the pay gap was not exactly as straightforward as it seems. Instead, as the article states:

“Because women aren’t getting paid twenty-some percent less than men for doing the same work. They are, however, often doing different work, or work that affords more flexibility — which tends to pay less.”

I’m not here to argue whether women get paid less for the same work because it is so hard to pin down and control for every single variable. What I have seen, over and over and over, is that women take lower paying jobs because they must be flexible.

In our society, if you have kids or you are caretaking for parents, somebody in the household must have flexibility. Somebody has to be there when there is a snow day, and somebody has to get the kids on and off the bus. If your school goes on strike, like ours did last year, there’s got to be somebody to manage the household. Elderly parents need somebody to drive them to their doctor’s appointments and show up in a hurry if they fall. Somebody has to take the kids to dance lessons and basketball camp, not to mention getting them out to a park when the weather is nice and inviting friends over to make sure they are properly socialized.

As my peer group became adults, I watched the men become consultants, lawyers, doctors, and, every once in awhile, stay-at-home dads. I watched the women become consultants, lawyers, doctors, and, frequently, stay-at-home moms. And when the kids came, the women were overwhelmingly the ones who stepped back. Went down to part-time, took a demotion so they could come to work for a few hours during the day rather than being there from 7 to 7. No, they can’t do 6 p.m. meetings, bedtime and bath time and play dates are the priority.

I’ve seen friends drop out of the workforce “for a few years” only to find that when they wanted to jump back in, there were no positions, they couldn’t get hired for jobs that were well below their qualifications because they “hadn’t been working” for six years. I’ve seen women take 50% pay cuts or not go for promotions because they cannot, they cannot be there at 6 a.m. or travel on the weekends. “You can have it all!” they say, but “they” are stupid. No you can’t. Not the way society is currently set up.

In my own life, I could make a lot more money, but my job gives me the kind of flexibility where I can take the kids to the dentist, come in late if there’s a 2-hour-delay, take my MIL to the doctor, and be home for afternoon school concerts. I can’t put a number value on that kind of flexibility. I love my job, loooove my job, but even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t look for something else. At the very least, not until the kids are all in public school, and probably not until they are all in their teens. The flexibility is not “nice.” It’s an absolute requirement for households with children.

It’s not like I’m saying this doesn’t affect men, because there are plenty of men who have made this kind of income sacrifice for their family. What I’m saying is that overwhelmingly, our society expects women to be in charge of the caretaking. We don’t have social nets set up so that there is universal daycare, and our households are not typically multi-generational so the work can be divided. Instead, these responsibilities are often just casually shoved onto the woman of the household’s shoulders.

It can be hard to think about FI with kids, because kids are expensive. But it’s not just that kids need money for clothes and food and college and activities. It’s that the flexibility required to properly raise children ends up costing people – mostly women – tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars over time.

15 thoughts on “The premium women pay for flexibility”

  1. Well said, my wife became a stay st home mom when we started having kids. She wanted to and it made financial sense because I had a high paying career and hers, as a school teacher, was on the low end. She became a home maker about the time I got my first big promotion so my raise offset her missing paycheck and our income never really dipped. It made sense from a desire standpoint and an economic one. She had no regrets nor do I.

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  2. I recently discovered your blog and am really enjoying it! However, I am a bit confused: why are there no comments ever posted? I am surely not your only fan🙂

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  3. Yes! As a longtime divorced dad who has always had my kids exactly 50% of the time, I totally understand and agree with your analysis even though I haven’t had to take the full economic impact since I’m self-employed. (Those three and a half days a week I’m not responsible for pick-ups, drop offs, lessons, play-dates, etc., are PACKED with work though). Since I can usually determine my own hours, the days when I have the kids I generally wind up working after they go to bed and just fall asleep with my computer in my lap. Sometimes a very lucrative and time-sensitive freelance gig will come in and I will sacrifice some family time (meals, games, conversations, etc.) to do it. My strategy in this case is to be honest with the kids that I am taking this job to make money for all of us, and then when the work is done I give them a small “share” of the profits (usually 2% each, so for a $2000 job they’d each get $40 cash). This has been nice because now they actually kind of look forward to the time sensitive gigs (which are pretty rare), and it lets them see first-hand the rewards of hard work and understand some of the trade-offs (of course that doesn’t work when they’re very young, but once they’re older I think it’s effective). My daughter is now a teenager and has started her own lucrative babysitting business, so the work-ethic is being passed down!

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      1. Ya I figured it might be a useful strategy for you. Let me know how it works if you try it!

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    1. I also don’t regret my flexibility! But it seems like a huge societal problem that … nobody gets to have it all right? Our society simply isn’t set up for people to have careers and have a family, unless said person has somebody at home taking care of all the details.

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  4. So true that it’s near impossible for both parents to have high charging careers. In our case, my husband is the stay at home dad while I work and focus on career. I get asked a lot how I do so much, and the answer is always that I don’t. My husband does a lot of the daily errands, helps out local family, drops off the kids, takes them to appointments, etc.

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  5. I agree with this so much! I just wrote a whole post about the cost of having kids, and I went into a whole section about how I’m working fewer hours /flexible hours now that we have kids. There’s no way that my husband and I could both have our jobs without my job’s high level of flexibility (and his job’s minor amounts of flexibility). I’m basically on a part time schedule until the kids can drive…

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      1. Spot on. It’s been said that the workplace is still structured based on a model where the man works and the woman is home taking care of the kids. It’s just depressing that we haven’t moved very far past that.

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      2. I’ve also seen studies where men are likely to get a promotion if a woman is pregnant, while women are likely to suffer professional consequences, through conscious and unconscious bias. Because men are supposedly bringing home the bacon so they need more money with more kids, while women, the thought goes, will be less available for work if there are more kids.

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