The Pay Gap Isn’t a “Choice”

By Sallie Krawcheck

We’re in the runup to International Women’s Day and to Women’s History Month. So my dance card has been a little more full than usual, taping podcasts on how far women and non-binary people have come … and how far we still have to go.

I was in one of the little phone booths at Ellevest recently, doing my “being interviewed for a podcast” thing, when the topic turned to the gender pay gap. I noted that it really tends to kick in when people have their first baby. I was then turning to make the case for a national, paid parental leave. (I mean, how does the US not have one of those … as the richest country in the world, the only developed country not to have one … when it pays for itself pretty quickly and even has bipartisan support???)

But this podcast host instead noted that “women make choices” after having a family that cause them to earn less. The implication was that these choices drive the gender pay gap.

And that sounds good, right? Who doesn’t like choices?

Puppy or kitten? Beach or mountains? Cream or 1% milk? Duke or Carolina Blue?*

Go part-time after having a baby? Put yourself on the “mommy track”? Stay home with junior?

But, in our society — are these choices always really choices?

Is it a “choice” to quit your job if your baby has a health condition and your company doesn’t provide parental leave — or you used it up when the baby was born?

Is it a choice to leave that job if you’re cobbling together vacation days to be home during your baby’s first days?

Are either of those really choices when we’ve been socialized that women are the family caregivers?

Is it a choice to put yourself on the mommy track when non-primary caregivers (ie, mostly men) get shorter parental leaves than primary caregivers (mostly women)? And when men don’t take all their leave when it’s offered? And thus it looks for all the world like the men are more committed to their work?

Is it a choice to not return to the workplace when the penalty for taking just one year out of the job market can mean a 39% drop in income for a woman, compared to a man’s 12% — and meanwhile, the cost of childcare is taking up a big chunk of your salary?

Is it a choice to work for a “Todd” at some point in your career (“Todd” being that person who may seem so well-meaning, but never promotes anyone who doesn’t look a lot like him)?

Is it a choice to have to fight harder for the raise? Because the research tells us that women ask for it as often as men but just don’t get it as often. And that women are promoted based on achievement (which takes longer) while men are promoted on potential. Is it a choice not to ask for a raise because we’re socialized not to be too “pushy”?

Is it a choice to not change jobs when you don’t get the raise, when only 34% of companies provide women the flexibility they need, and you can’t find one that does?

Is it a choice to step out of the workplace when you haven’t gotten a raise in several years — but your partner’s career is going well and meanwhile, the cost of childcare is still taking up a big chunk of your salary?

(Since it’s us, you know we’re going to add: Can we chalk it up to “choice” for women not to invest as much as men do, when we’ve been told — repeatedly — that we’re risk averse, not that good at math, that investing is not really for us?)

Now, we may do any of these things above happily. But we shouldn’t be confused by how much of a “choice” they truly represent.

The word “choice” implies full agency.

A key point here is that words — the words we choose to use — matter. The word “choice” implies full agency, implies that any decision we make is as accepted by society and our families as any other. And, in fact, there is research that says when we frame someone’s action as a “choice” they are making, we tend to blame them for any negative outcome of that action — in this case, the gender pay gap.

What if we reframed this issue as “the US chooses to be the only developed country without paid parental leave, and primary caregivers — mostly women — suffer a childcare penalty”? What if we reframed it as “companies choose not to remedy unconscious bias in the workplace, which reinforces the pay gap”?

Would we be blaming women for their “choices” then?

Until we have true equality of opportunity — perhaps particularly in those first years of a new family — these “choices” will remain false choices.

Sallie Krawcheck Signature


Kitten, beach, cream, Carolina Blue

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Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck is the Founder & CEO of Ellevest.