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.