The No. 1 Thing We Must Do to Finally Put the Gender Pay Gap Behind Us

Coworkers talking in office


Melissa Birge
Melissa Birge

The gender wage gap is much in the news these days, and that’s a good thing, because it’s real. First, let’s understand how the wage gap is calculated: you take the median yearly earnings of all the full-time, year round working women in America and compare that to the same figure for all of the full-time, year round working men in America.

Based on that, women overall earn $12,600 less than men before they have children. This could be explained by a variety of factors, but what is really astounding is that after they have children the wage gap grows to $25,100, according to a recent study by the Census Bureau.

Claire Cain Miller of the NY Times recently reported on the study: “The issue, in general, comes down to time. Children require a lot of it…and mothers spend disproportionately more time than fathers on childcare and related responsibilities. This seems to be particularly problematic for women building their careers, when they might have to work hardest and prove themselves most...” AKA, women in their prime childbearing years.

Harvard Economist Claudia Goldin, a leading expert on the topic of gender wage inequality, has published a number of studies demonstrating the importance of time as a primary culprit behind the wage gap. The minute children are born, the extra time burden on the mother begins, and widening gender pay gaps follow right behind. The woman takes maternity leave, and the man returns to his job to enjoy congratulations and the ability to continue building his career.

According to a Pew Research 2013 study, mothers spent an average of 10.7 hours per week engaged in childcare, compared with fathers’ 7.2 hours. Additionally, the study found that 42% of mothers reported that they had reduced their work hours in order to care for children, only 28% of fathers did the same. As noted by Ms. Cain Miller, “when women work fewer hours, they are paid disproportionately less and become less likely to get raises or promotions.”

All very interesting, but how do we change it? It may seem counterintuitive, but in my opinion, one of the best things we can do is to give a benefit to men: paid paternity leave. But it’s not enough for companies to offer this benefit. For it to start to close the gender wage gap, companies must strongly encourage, if not mandate, that the leave be taken. That’s why my co-founder and I started a petition asking them to do just that.

Mandated paternity leave would immediately put men and women on a more level playing field. Companies would be sending a message that they recognize the vital societal role of family caregiving as the equal responsibility of both men and women.

Women grow up knowing that one day they will have to make a choice between family and career, while men do not. It is a completely different mindset, and one that can only be changed over time. This cultural difference between men and women indirectly provides gasoline for the gender wage inequality problem. It is because this cultural difference is so ingrained that companies must take the extraordinary step to mandate the leave.

When fathers stay home in the early weeks of a newborn’s life, they too will benefit by bonding with their child more quickly and genuinely. Participating in creating a new routine will help establish a more equal division of responsibility and a deeper understanding of adjustments needed by both partners to raise children and continue to develop professionally. Mothers will benefit physically and emotionally by having an extra pair of hands to help with diaper changes, getting the baby back to sleep, bathing the baby and taking the baby for walks. Knowing that their husbands are there to assist in meaningful ways will reduce their stress and feelings of isolation, and it will give them more confidence that the juggle is manageable. It will also help to open up a dialogue between men and women about who will do what once they both return to work.

I believe that over time, the impact of mandatory paternity leave will help to close the gap on the unequal time burden on mothers, thus narrowing the gender pay gap. This has been proven in Iceland, where the government provides for a set amount of paid parental leave that can be taken as a couple.  The man must take a specified portion of the time or the family will lose those benefits. Of the men who took their parental leave, 70% were still equally sharing in parental responsibilities when the child was three.

Mandated paternity leave is not the only solution to closing the gender pay gap, but it is something that companies can implement fairly easily using the model they already have in place for their female employees.

The gender pay gap won’t close itself. It’s time for companies to take meaningful action. Please join me in urging them to do so by signing our petition at


Melissa R. Birge is the founder and CEO of Mia Tango, an online maternity boutique that features a curated set of maternity clothing that customers can buy new or used, and then trade back in for credits to buy new styles. She also serves as the audit committee chair on the board of directors of Paris-based SRP Group, which operates the fashion website