Michelle Quist: Utah’s worship of stay-at-home mothering needlessly widens the gender wage gap

How can so many Utahns defend the stay-at-home paradigm as a justifiable reason for the wage gap when that paradigm mostly applies to middle- and upper-class, white, women?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Staff Photo. Michelle Quist.

Utah now has America’s biggest gender wage gap. If your first reaction is to stop reading and roll your eyes, then this column is for you.

Utah women on average earn only 70 cents on the dollar compared with men. Nationally, the gap is 80 cents on the dollar. Still nothing to celebrate.

Women of color have it even harder. Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar a white male earns. Latina women earn 54 cents.

Let that sink in.

I recently posted an article on my Facebook page about this issue and within minutes had more comments than I usually get on political articles in a week. And the first comments were from what I’ll call gap-deniers.

If the gap were real …..” Please, friends. The gender wage gap is real.

One gap-denier claimed, “The market has priced in a discount for a reason.”


The sentiment explains why an earlier report showed that 67 percent of men in Utah believe that women are paid the same as men.

If most Utahns agree that women should be paid the same as men for the same work, then why aren’t they? Pay discrimination accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the gap, illustrated by the remarks of a former Wasatch County Republican Party vice chair, who said women shouldn’t be paid equally because men are the proper breadwinners. (And yes, that’s a Washington Post cite.)

Not hiring a woman because a man needs to support his family is discrimination. Period.

People, mostly women, shout slogans during a protest at the Sol square during the International Women's Day in Madrid, Thursday, March 8, 2018. Spanish women are marking International Women's Day with the first-ever full day strike and dozens of protests across the country against wage gap and gender violence. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

But there are more reasons that explain the gender gap than just discrimination, including women leaving careers to have children, and lots of them in Utah, women choosing low-paying careers and women not graduating from college.

One thing is clear, women don’t choose lower-paying jobs because they don’t want to make money. Women don’t choose to be underpaid.

Utah’s teachers are 71 percent female. More women than men choose lower-paying careers like teaching because teaching allows women to also care for children. They can leave when school is over. They have summers off when their kids are at home.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Board of Education members Carol Lear and Kathleen Riebe listen to comments on HB235, which would create the Family School Partnership Pilot Program, during committee meeting at the State capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday February 8, 2018.

What might happen if higher-paying jobs regularly provided such flexibility?

When 82 percent of Utahns in mathematics and computer occupations are men, you know something is skewed.

The irony, of course, is that before women worked, men filled these highly regarded and compensated “pink collar” jobs.

Why don’t women finish their degrees? Again, because they’re having children, and a disproportionate share of what’s required falls on them.

It’s the same reason why men spend more hours at work than women do. Utah women spend approximately 5.55 hours on unpaid care work per day, compared to men who spend 3.22 hours per day.

In other words, women take care of the people in your life. Why should we be OK with a system that says they’re not entitled to a higher-paying, higher-status job because they went home to take grandma to the doctor when you wouldn’t?

And, the “motherhood penalty.”

I’ve written before about how when I worked in a New York City law firm I was well-liked by the partners in my department until I announced my pregnancy. I lost all support and worthwhile work. The actions of my law firm effectively forced me to choose to stay home.

Instead of working part-time with my firm in New York, and keeping my foot in that door, my trajectory plummeted. Mostly because keeping me as an asset wasn’t worth the trouble.

The firm lost, and so did I.

When I went back in, despite keeping up with licensing requirements in two states, I basically had to start over. But I lucked out. I clerked for Judge Monroe G. McKay on the 10th Circuit.

But there is no way I would have landed that job had it not been for Judge McKay actively looking for hard cases – people who needed a little extra help. Like maybe a socially awkward but brilliant lawyer. Or a mom.

Not keeping a connection with a woman choosing to stay home for a period costs a company money, time and credibility.

Returning women often find themselves in entry-level interviews only to be told they are too qualified. Has that employer thought to ask why an overqualified woman is applying for their position in the first place?

Think for a minute who is actually making this “choice” to stay home? Some women do have the luxury of such a choice – mostly white and middle- and upper-class women. How many single women do you know who can stay at home with their children? How many married women do you know who can’t?

How can so many Utahns defend the stay-at-home paradigm as a justifiable reason for the wage gap when that paradigm mostly applies to middle- and upper-class, white, women? If we value motherhood, why aren’t we helping all women achieve it without unnecessary penalties?

Employers can shrink the wage gap by maintaining relationships, actively recruiting and training women and setting clear wage guidelines that don’t depend on gender.

Government doesn’t have to mandate rules and policies in order for employers to make a positive difference. But government can model better behavior with its own employees. And it can incentivize companies who diversify.

Some gap-deniers say that admitting there is a gap because a woman takes time off to raise children doesn’t sufficiently credit the choice to have and raise children.

In effect, these men say, the gap exists, and you can choose to be subject to it (by staying home with kids) or not.

Is that good enough?

Here in Utah, where religion is such a large part of our culture and policy, motherhood is divine.

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This Pat Bagley cartoon appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, April 12, 2018.

And I’m not saying it isn’t. But in the words of former prophet Joseph F. Smith,

“By what process of reasoning can it be shown that a woman standing at the head of a family with all the responsibility resting upon her to provide for them, should be deprived of the avenues and ways or means that a man in like circumstances may enjoy to provide for them? Yet many of these unwholesome conditions do exist and that too vastly to the detriment of women...strange to say, women may be found who seem to glory in their enthralled condition and caress and fondle the very chains and manacles which fetter and enslave them! Let those who love this helpless, dependent condition and prefer to remain in it, enjoy it; but for conscience and for mercy’s sake let them not stand in the way of…their sisters who would be, and of right ought to be free. … Let no woman be deterred for a moment from her whole duty, by such contemptible twaddle.”

I get it. Growth is uncomfortable. One hundred years ago we didn’t want women working. Now, most women in Utah work. Do we really need to wait another 100 years to incentivize behavior that will both cherish motherhood while also protecting those mothers we cherish?

I hope not.

Michelle Quist is an editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune who understands the importance of mothers and the importance of a system that doesn't penalize them for being mothers.