The one thing you can do today to help close the pay gap


I keep hearing the same story again and again from professionally successful women. Variations on:

My grandma told me: “Always have your own money.”

It could be a mother, aunt, neighbor, Girl Scout leader, teacher, cousin, mentor or favorite coach.

What to teach girls about money

An older, respected woman looked her straight in the eye, and in her own but direct way said:

  • “Do not ever depend on a man financially.”
  • “Money is power, and never, ever give up that power.”
  • “You are powerful. Never chose to give up that power.”
  • “You are responsible for your own life.”
  • “You are not a victim.”
  • “I believe in you.”

Many of the women who tell me these stories are in their 40s, 50s and older, and their champions were women of a generation or two more senior than that. This is important because it is clear that women found ways to be financially independent — whether through work, or even squirreling away cash in their own name or shoebox in the back of a closet — even if they had but a fraction of the economic and career opportunity you and I enjoy.

They got it. And they made sure that the women who came after them got it, too.

Somehow, we have not collectively gotten it. By ‘it,' I mean the giant, enormous pressure for women to be stay-at-home moms and abandon their financial power, and therefore, their autonomy as adults.

The simple truth about the gender pay gap

There is a lot of pressure on women in the workforce to forsake their economic power en lieu of family.

Pew found that an astonishing 40 percent of Americans believe that children suffer when their mother works outside of the home. And study after study finds that the 21% gender paygap is a result not of rich white men in C-suits keeping competent women down, but rather women choosing to compromise their careers to care for loved ones. This pressure is so great that women who actually earn a living, falsely label themselves “stay-at-home moms.”

A recent project between my friend time management expert Laura Vanderkam and Redbook magazine found that 62% of described stay-at-home moms contributed to their household income, including 25% who run businesses. I know a blogger who earns $80,000 per year and calls herself a stay-at-home mom — a disconnect that is both common destructive, since it perpetuates the economically oppressive pressure to abandon our livelihoods and lives for our children and husbands.

Meanwhile, all research confirms: It makes zero difference how much time a parent spends with a kid after age 2, and the greatest indicators of a child's future wellbeing is her mother's education and income level.

Let us not forget: Working mothers are far less prone to depression and anxiety, and divorce rates are 50% higher for families in which one spouse does not work.

In other words: We glamorize stay-at-home moms, when science proves again and again that everyone is happier, healthier and more financially secure when both parents work.

After all: Divorce rates have been more or less steady at 50% for 40 years. The other 50% of couples? Unemployment, disability, death and other catastrophes mean a one-career family is a precarious financially agreement indeed. And when these families do divorce or separate, the new paradigm is likely to be very sexist indeed, with the mom having primary care of the kids, and being financially dependent on her ex's child support and/or alimony payments. Which is why I wrote this guide on how to divorce like a feminist.

Listen to my podcast episode on this topic:

Breaking the cycle of the wage gap

So this is what you will do to make sure we break this cycle of women sabotaging their own wellbeing, and that of their children, marriage and for women and society overall:

You will identify a girl. Maybe it is your daughter, or granddaughter. Niece, student, mentee or neighbor. She might be 6 or 16 or a young woman of 26. You will tell her with zero nuance or caveat:

Always have your own money. 

Never give up your ability to earn.

You are not an adult if you chose to be financially dependent on another person. 

In my research, I have found it only takes telling a young person this critical message one time. The message taps into such a primal, visceral need for freedom, power and independence, even very young girls understand it intuitively.

But do not tell her just one time. Tell her again and again. Like you make sure your child knows to be kind, and say thank you and not to chew with her mouth open. Just as you make sure that young people know how to swim and must eat vegetables, this is a non-negotiable.

Knowing this shapes the life decisions you make

Because when a child is raised to reap the magnificent bounty that is the education, professional, political and financial equality that women in this country in 2018 enjoy, and understand that she will never, ever chart her own course in this world until she embraces it as her duty to exercise it in its fullest, you set her on a certain course. On the right course. It is a course that affects every single vertical of her life:

  • The choices she makes in where she attends college, and how she will pay for it (because when you are wise about your education and related finances, and do not assume that a man will take care of you and your debt eventually, you make better choices).
  • The career path she pursues.
  • The relationships she forges with friends and colleagues (because these are the spine of her entire life).
  • The money she does and does not spend on fun.
  • The money she does and does not invest.
  • The partner she selects (or rejects).
  • The children she choses to have (or not).
  • The age she chooses to become a mother.
  • The way she sees herself in the world, the value she brings to her partner, her children, friends, and the world around her. 

By saying: “Always have your own money,” to a girl you are saying:

“You are powerful. And I believe that you will never, ever give up that power.”

She gets it. She will thank you. And women everywhere, forever, will thank you.

Did an older woman inspire you to always have your own money? Share your important story in the comments.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.  Find out Emma's top Single Mom Resources here.


  1. Alexander Jacques Sabucido on October 5, 2019 at 1:14 am

    The tips in this article would actually be a huge help for you to close the pay gap.

  2. Karl on March 29, 2018 at 11:52 pm

    Stay at home moms want to be like children and be dependent on someone else. They have to be under the control of that someone else for money, food, and shelter. But they’re willing to do it because they’re too lazy to work.

    • J on September 17, 2018 at 7:59 pm

      Ok that’s just a ridiculous comment. But I guess you are entitled to your blanket statement opinion

  3. Waylon on February 21, 2018 at 9:35 am

    Another soulless article where MONEY is GOD.

  4. Emma Smith on February 1, 2018 at 6:27 am

    Oh my goodness!!! I was saying this when I was at uni (25 years ago!) and my friends looked at me like I was a mad, uncompromising, man-hater. Now those same friends, some of whom were at university with me, who gave up work when they had kids either feel powerless to resume their career, and beholden to their partner. OR have had to go back to work in lower paid, lower-skilled positions – eg a qualified teacher working as a teaching assistant on WAY less money. That, my friends, is where the pay gap comes from. One of these friends said to me recently ‘Now I understand what you meant.’ In my own case, I’m a solo mum so being a stay-at-home mum wasn’t an option for me but that lack of choice has worked to my advantage. The pressure to be a stay-at-home mum is real, even I’ve felt it, but by having no choice but to remain in the workforce I’ve retained my personal power and my daughter gets to watch me be a mum AND not depend on a man for money.

  5. Steveark on January 31, 2018 at 4:43 pm

    I don’t argue the gap is real and as a male technical manager I worked against it to be a gender blind boss. However there is another much larger gap worth addressing as well. The gap between an average employee and a world class one. I made four times the wages of an average employee in my position. That dwarfs the gender gap, even if I had been a female victim of the gap assuming my performance would have gotten me to the same job I’d still have been paid over three times average wages even if I had a 21 % unjust penalty due to my gender. I think the best way to win over injustice in this case is to be the best, but that only works for the gifted few, but at least at my company it seemed to. When I early retired from the job of running that company I was replaced by a Gen X female, which made me proud considering it had long been a male dominated sector. Both my daughters and my daughter-in-lasw are highly educated professionals and depend on no man for money.

  6. Ms ZiYou on January 31, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    This is so on topic, and a great piece of advice to give to young females.

    I feel we also need to give the advice to young men; you can be the main caregiver or joint caregivers/breadwinners or the breadwinner.

    The sooner we extend paternity leave and reduce the societal pressure on men to be the main provider, the easier and more equal everyone will become.

    I support people choosing staying at home who have a partner to provide financially, the same as I support people who work. Once society starts adjusting these norms and we lose the gendered split, the pay gap will naturally close.

  7. Bridget on January 31, 2018 at 11:55 am

    I can remember the moment–like it was yesterday–that my grandma said to me, “Always be independent.” Her words had such an impact that they literally became my life’s mantra. I earned a masters degree, have worked in Silicon Valley for 20 years and am raising a daughter as a single mom. With every accomplishment, I know I am living the kind of life my grandma envisioned for me and the seed for all of it was planted with those three simple words.

  8. Staci Teeters on January 31, 2018 at 11:40 am

    I absolutely LOVE THIS. I wish someone, anyone, had told me this when I was growing up. My mom got married straight out of high school & stayed home with us. We always had plenty & I had a good childhood. However, in my mind, because my mom’s life revolved around me & my activities, I thought the whole world did as well. Now I am a single mom of 3 daughters struggling to make ends meet because I made the very costly mistake of depending on a man for financial security. I made my education & career (or lack thereof) choices based on him & what he wanted & what he always told me I was incapable of doing. I am doing everything in my power to make sure that none of them ever fall in to that mindset. I constantly push education and remind them that had I done things the correct way, all of our lives would be so much easier. Thank you for this message & for reminding us that we do have a choice!

  9. Liz on June 20, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    First off, I love your blog and view myself as a single mother, yet am married. I believe in having my own identity… That being said, I stepped off the career path with 6 months worth of reserves when transitioning out of the military. My intention was absolutely never a career path. My intention was making my own way in the world. Since then, I have failed at over 8 business initiatives in my attempt to fine tune it over the past 5 years. If I didn’t live with my husband, I would live in a tent until I got it right. I have before. When you need money for something, it becomes imperative that you earn it, and provide for yourself. Entrepreneurship requires living on the edge, as you could always lose everything. I think that’s the level of confidence we need to give our girls. Fear of being without is laughable in most places on earth, and fear of not being perfect is why people wait till 40 for kids. If everyone would quit being so damned afraid of everything, they wouldn’t wake up at 40 wondering what happened.Fear of investing is something we need to teach them to get over. Maybe that isn’t your point, maybe you disagree, but my children will never be afraid of walking away from a bad situation, so won’t be scared to truly love someone, either. Have your own money is interchangeable with have a set of valuable skills, the ability to make money, and the courage to go for it. How hard is it to leave a bad relationship? Why is it easier to walk away from independence than abuse? For the love of God: someone turn the tables!! I think you are off to a good start. I’m rambling… It’s a good start to tell them what to do, but just tell them how, too, ok?

  10. Shira @ Zero Cost Kids on June 16, 2016 at 11:28 am

    Hi Emma!
    I’m all for financial independence, and diligently saved and invested for the first 20 years of my career before having kids. But I also am one of the people who believes time with children IS important. Bloggers and other business owners who make money working at home call themselves stay at home moms because they are HOME all day with their children, and fit in work around what their children need, It’s very different than leaving all day for a workplace.
    As a fellow journalist and interested parent, I’m very interested to see some of the research you mention re: all “research shows it makes no difference how much time a parent spends with children after age 2,” and that science shows repeatedly that “everyone is happier, healthier and more financially secure” with two working parents. (the financially secure part makes intuitive sense, but not the rest)
    Please do provide some links so we can see some of this scientific research and consider it.
    All best to you and your girls!

    • Emma on June 17, 2016 at 8:58 am

      Sounds like you drank the Kool-Aid:

      “Though American parents are with their children more than any parents in the world, many feel guilty because they don’t believe it’s enough. That’s because there’s a widespread cultural assumption that the time parents, particularly mothers, spend with children is key to ensuring a bright future.

      Now groundbreaking new research upends that conventional wisdom and finds that that isn’t the case. At all.

      In fact, it appears the sheer amount of time parents spend with their kids between the ages of 3 and 11 has virtually no relationship to how children turn out, and a minimal effect on adolescents, according to the first large-scale longitudinal study of parent time to be published in April in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The finding includes children’s academic achievement, behavior and emotional well-being.

      “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” said Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto and one of the report’s authors.”

      “The part-timers were less depressed, had better health, were more sensitive to their children and were better able to provide them with learning opportunities.”

      • Waylon on February 21, 2018 at 9:43 am

        Another pro-corporation, pro-money article by the Marxist blogger.

  11. Dee on June 16, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Thank you so much for this post. When I was married, I definitely had “stay-at-home-mom” fantasies. My mom stayed home with me and my brothers until I (the youngest) went off to kindergarten, so that was my model of how things should be done. I really, really wanted that same situation for my baby and me. I have a “good job” but do not love it or find it rewarding by any means, so I would much rather have been home being a mommy all day. And it may have been possible…my husband at the time had a very promising career. Until he spiraled out of control (very surprisingly and very quickly) with addiction. I then realized how very lucky I was to have my career. I was lucky I never took a break from earning my own money. I was SO lucky that I could easily support myself and my child. I did not have a specific person who inspired me to do these things. I just learned by chance, through personal experience, that you cannot and should not ever rely on anyone financially. Because you never know when the rug will be pulled out from under you, and all of a sudden you are on your own again. And you don’t know if there will be child support or not. In my case, there was not for a very long time. I was able to divorce my husband and get on with my life and my child’s life without too many financial woes. And I am so thankful that’s how things went for me. It could have been very different had I been able to give in to my SAHM fantasies. I still don’t LOVE my job, but I love the income, I love the health insurance, I love the roof over our heads in a nice neighborhood, I love that it allows me to pay for sports and activities and vacations for my daughter to enjoy. I thank my lucky stars that I have this career, and I’m proud that this is the model my daughter is growing up with. Thank you again for this post….it is so important for our daughters to hear this message!

    • Shira @ Zero Cost Kids on June 16, 2016 at 11:35 am

      That’s a very unfortunate situation with your ex…but I do hope many marriages can also be based on a partnership model and a division of labor. Men or women who are educated and had a career means they could go back to working and earning in event of job loss of the spouse, disability, divorce, death, etc.
      I don’t believe all married parents should work because they are worried about the sutuation changing and feel they would never be able to renter the workplace.
      All best to you,

      • Emma Johnson on June 17, 2016 at 8:52 am

        Statistically, this is false and a fantasy that women use to drop out: “Men or women who are educated and had a career means they could go back to working and earning in event of job loss of the spouse, disability, divorce, death, etc.”

        The pay gap is attributed to women stepping off the career path to stay home, and there is no such thing as relying on a formal education from a zillion years ago to launch you back into a career-track job. Tons of research and anecdotal evidence on this.

        • Dee on June 27, 2016 at 4:21 pm

          Totally agree! It’s hard enough to find a better job or a more rewarding job when you are IN the workforce. I can’t imagine how hard it would be trying to get back in after years of being absent.

      • Jamie on February 1, 2018 at 6:34 am

        Good luck to the woman (or man) trying to re-enter the competitive workplace after a 10 yr employment gap due to being a stay-at-home parent!

    • Emma on June 17, 2016 at 8:59 am

      Thank you for this perspective … this isn’t about what is fun and nice, but being a responsible adult, parent and member of society. Muah!

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