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Our readers speak out: Fix the gender wage gap and corral more support for women

Reader's response

As the nation celebrates Labor Day this week, American workers who make one of the largest contributions to the economy continue to pay a price. Our readers call out the career obstacles and wage penalties facing women, and they offer creative solutions for changing the system.

Americans can’t celebrate the social and economic achievements of workers on Labor Day without honoring the substantial contributions of women, which account for nearly all of the economic gains that have occurred among middle class families since 1970. Despite this well-documented fact, mothers continue to face barriers in their careers and in entrepreneurship.

Supporting women who engage in entrepreneurship and salary employment is essential to ensuring greater economic gains for them, their families and the broader economy.

To add to recent conversations about the lack of support for women – one of the nation’s real economic power sources – we asked readers to share their own experiences with hurdles facing mothers in employment and entrepreneurship and what solutions they have to change the systems impeding progress. While their responses to do not represent every obstacle out there, they are compelling, real-life experiences and potential solutions worthy of consideration and continued attention.

Ironically, women pay a price for participating in the workforce

It is estimated that women working full-time in the U.S. earned $547.7 billion less than their male counterparts in 2019, and individually could earn hundreds of thousands less over the course of a 40-year career.

Many women who leave the workforce for maternity leave and childcare come back to positions and wages less than their experience. Many companies I have dealt with do not have real parental leave, even those that claim they do. Often mothers get demerits if they leave early or come late due to kids’ issues – yet men can easily vanish for a soccer game.” — Catherine Timko, Founder, The Riddle Company

Catherine Timko
Mary Florence

“Women are penalized financially when they take maternity leave. It should qualify as disability leave covered by the government as opposed to by employers, otherwise it puts small businesses at a disadvantage. Small businesses are less likely to have the resources to cover both the expenses of maternity leave and the hiring of a temporary replacement.

When I asked a manager for a minute to talk, he said, ‘… as long as you’re not pregnant…’ So, when I did get pregnant, I hid it for as long as possible. I then missed a raise while off on maternity leave, so was making less than peers. This also hurt me for promotions because I was higher ranked but overlooked in favor of a male counterpart who had ’four kids and a wife at home to support.’ (And I might get pregnant again!). This is only one of the many reasons why I started my own business.” — Mary Florence, Director of Marketing and Business Development, Daystar West Consulting, Inc.

The current model of full-time employment is insufficient to address the gender wage gap. It is, by its nature, to keep the status quo. I suggest contract employment as the best way available right now to ensure equal pay for equal work.

— Lee Denis
Founder and CEO, Fair Work Fair Play

Many businesses have little to no recognition of the additional costs and demands incurred by mothers. Their assumption is that motherhood was a choice made by the woman, and she must bear the consequence. I have seen this perpetuated in several workplace experiences.” — George Perkins, Board Treasurer, Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory

George Perkins
Mike Slater

“I believe getting pay equality is essential for the workplace because, when we achieve this, men can more easily share the home workload without depriving their family. Remember there is no state in the union where men outnumber women, so women getting pay equity should be the number #1 priority for business and government.” — Mike Slater, Business Development Officer, Vital Financial Services

The gender wage penalty is even greater for women of color

Gwendolyn Washington

“One problem is that we are not visible at the top. Exposure and networking are necessary. Black women need to hold more seats at the top and then create a community of Black women to share that space. A collaboration between professional white men, schools and black women should be on the agenda.” — Gwendolyn Washington, CEO/Consultant, WeDevelopment Federal Credit Union

The lack of support for women engaged in the economy hurts communities

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of the contributions mothers make to their families and their communities.

“Indigenous women are the caretakers for our young and elders. During the pandemic, women were the care infrastructure for our communities. Many had to close up their business or had to work full time without flexible working conditions to allow for them to care for people, adding to the harms due to the pandemic. My advice is to look to Native Women Lead as an example of a program that is making an impact for indigenous women, they know and have lived the experience themselves and can close the gap for themselves.” — Vanessa Roanhorse, CEO, Roanhorse Consulting

Vanessa Roanhorse

The broader economy fails to support women in a variety of ways

Work-family policies, such as paid leave, affordable and high-quality child care and flexible schedules, would bring much-needed support to mothers in the labor force — both as employees and as entrepreneurs.

Magali Dieny Eaton

Women entrepreneurs in my network are often penalized when they need schedule flexibility to accommodate family needs. As an added barrier for the academic women entrepreneurs I support, when their startup fails, the quality of the startup venture’s foundational scientific research is more likely to be questioned, in contrast with their male peers who simply failed because many startups do for various reasons. It can affect their entire academic career and is a huge barrier to access. A number of women entrepreneurs also experience self-imposed barriers. I’ve learned from local angel investors that women consistently wait until they are at a later stage to seek funding, leading to more women-led businesses failing for lack of funding. And, of course, there are the well-known and classic experiences of sexual misconduct, asking questions that have nothing to do with the business, not being taken seriously, etc.” — Magali Dieny Eaton, Assistant Director, Innovation Training, CoMotion at the University of Washington

I think the definition of scalable should include sustainability – the need for a quick exit leaves out businesses that create environments that support women with flexibility, which is as important as a livable and equitable wage.

— Laura Zeck
Founder & Curator, ZINC contemporary

Short-sighted biases cause barriers to entrepreneurship and financing for women

All-female teams receive a disproportionately small amount of VC and angel funding compared to all-male teams.

Lisette Dennis

“Men have created and run many of the entrepreneur programs in my area. They often don’t either listen, understand or value women’s ideas. Also, they don’t answer women’s requests for information or for mentoring as easily as they do for men. Women entrepreneurs are grilled far more vigorously by men than are men, and their failures are less often forgiven.” — Lisette Dennis, Founder, Remainder Construction Materials

I have definitely experienced bias during the pitch process, especially in my first round of funding. Investors actually said things like, ‘Is your spouse helping you run the business, because you could be hit by a bus tomorrow,’ and ‘We are concerned that you own too much equity,’ and ‘How many women are in decision-making roles?’ only to be told that they did not invest in hardware-based startups. For context, we have received $1.7 million in non-dilutive funding, exceeded $1 million in revenue our first year on the market, and our product is now in 33 states across the U.S. and six countries. It begs the question – what metrics investors are actually using to identify companies worthy of an investment.” — Laura Boccanfuso, Founder and CEO, Van Robotics

Laura Boccanfuso

Investors should be made aware of their own biases, although they think that they don’t have any – academic research might help a lot here. VC firms might publish annual objectives depending on the split in their portfolios to help reverse the trend.

— Imge Kaya-Sabanci
PhD candidate, I.E. Business School, Madrid; Consultant, Entrepreneurship, Gender and Development

Other forms of financing are also a challenge for women entrepreneurs

Cathy Kottwitz

“I have owned my business for 5 years and have received only one business credit card offer. My husband, however, started receiving them for his business within a month of registering his LLC. It’s a bit ironic since I actually have the higher credit rating of the two of us, and my company generates profit while his is still in development. What it shows, though, is that there’s a clear skewing in the credit system somewhere that emphasizes male-owned ventures over female-owned ventures. I think this is likely the same kind of skewing that is keeping women and minorities out of other financing and investment streams.” — Cathy Kottwitz, owner, Guiderock Commercial Realty LLC