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The working world's best-kept secret is: If you want to get something done, give it to a mom. And yet, women worldwide are penalized for becoming mothers.
Worldwide women earned 23 percent less than men, according to U.N. statistics. This number has held steady for the last 20 years. But it hasn't always been clear why women continue to lag behind financially, despite earning more degrees than men and sometimes finding more equitable conditions.
A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that a lack of women in certain higher-paying (and male-dominated) industries is contributing to the disparity. Researchers Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn explain the study found that, still, too few women are going in to science, technology, engineering and other math-intensive fields. "And gender differences in college major have been found to be an important determinant of the pay gap between college-educated men and women," they wrote in their study.
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, shares this view, writing that increasing the number of women in STEM fields is not only key to closing the pay gap, but necessary to keep women in the labor market.
So while sex discrimination is down significantly, women's career choices are keeping the inequality alive, their study found. The authors call for tech companies to close the pay gap between their male and female employees.
They also called for tech companies—and all employers—to create paid maternity leave policies. Almost 90 percent of women in the U.S. don't get paid family leave of any sort. A lack of leave pushes women out of the workforce, their study found. Google cut in half the number of new moms who left the company after it significantly overhauled its paid maternity and paternity leave policies.
Another big problem for the pay gap, the study found, was the perception that mothers were less competent and less committed to paid work. Worldwide, women are offered lower starting salaries on average. Frustratingly, men who become fathers find the opposite is true for them.
"Current research continues to find evidence of a motherhood penalty for women and of a marriage premium for men," the report found.
The gender pay gap and lack of maternity leave policies are structural problems, in the U.S. and elsewhere. During his final year in office, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission under President Barack Obama will review salary data from the biggest U.S. companies and analyze pay data based on race, gender and ethnicity.
For real change, today's young girls need to be raised to find their way and develop their interests in math and science. Their moms and dads need to push for equal pay and humane paid maternity leave, so that when it comes time to choose a career, time off after babies won't be a lucky benefit but an underlying expectation.