Parenthood exacerbates the gender pay gap

The absence of mothers and the rise in childlessness among workers is also found in national data. Controlling for labor market and family characteristics, the gender employment gap among the childless is only six percentage points, while it is 20 percentage points among parents. High-achieving women are forgoing families at rates not observed among high-achieving men. This is an important form of gender inequity. Moreover, the relative absence of mothers may represent a brain-drain of experienced skilled workers.

The GAO report shows that for the mothers who do persist in management, the gender pay gap (relative to fathers) is far larger than the gender pay gap among childless managers. This is true across the labor market, as national data shows that among full-time workers, childless women earn 94 cents of a childless man’s dollar, while mothers earn only 60 cents of a father’s dollar.

The gender pay gap and parenthood pay gap are strongly linked. Economist Jane Waldfogel’s research demonstrates that 40 percent to 50 percent of the gender gap can be explained by the impact of parental and marital status on men’s and women’s earnings. Moreover, while the gender pay gap has been decreasing, the pay gap related to parenthood is increasing.

Having children reduces women’s earnings, even among workers with comparable qualifications, experience, work hours, and jobs, is now well established. My research shows that all women experience reduced earnings for each additional child they have. This penalty ranges in size from 15 percent per child among low-wage workers to about 4 percent among the highly paid.

That mothers work less and may accept lower earnings for more family-friendly jobs partially explains the penalty among low-wage workers, and that mothers have less experience, due to interruptions for childbearing, explains some of the penalty among the highly paid. But a significant motherhood penalty persists even in estimates that account for these differences: the size of the wage penalty after all factors are controlled is roughly three percent per child, which, in 2009, means the typical full-time female worker earned $1,100 less per child.

This unexplained three percent penalty partially derives from employer discrimination against mothers. Evidence from experimental and audit studies finds motherhood discrimination in callbacks for job applications, hiring decisions, wage offers, and promotions. Sociologist Shelley Correll’s research shows that, after reviewing resumes that differed only in noting parental status, subjects in an experiment systematically rated childless women and fathers significantly higher than mothers on competency, work commitment, promotability, and recommendations for hire.

The motherhood penalty compares women against women to see how children reduce wages. However, among men, fatherhood increases earnings. Some of this fatherhood bonus is due to the fathers’ longer worker hours, greater experience, and higher ranking jobs. But even after we adjust for these differences, collaborator Melissa Hodges and I find a fatherhood bonus for all men, and this bonus is greatest for white and Latino college graduates, whose annual earnings are $4,000 to $5,000 higher than comparable childless men. Thus, we see that parenthood exacerbates gender pay gaps.

What kinds of policies might reduce the gender gap in pay attributable to wage penalties for motherhood? In National Science Foundation-funded cross-national research on 22 nations I’ve conducted with collaborators Joya Misra and Irene Boeckmann, we’ve identified three key policies that are linked to smaller motherhood penalties:

1. Early Childhood Education for preschool children and publicly supported, affordable, high-quality care for children under age two, enables mothers to maintain connections to employment and therein dramatically reduces the motherhood wage penalty.

2. Universal, moderate length, job-protected leaves following the birth/adoption of a child reduces motherhood penalties. The Family and Medical Leave Act needs to be extended to all workplaces and workers, and ideally should be longer than 12 weeks.

3. Universal, shorter-term paid maternity and paternity leave are linked to smaller motherhood penalties. Short-term paid maternity leave (six to 12 weeks) reduces mothers’ jobs quits after birth and increases returns to work with the same employer. Moreover, non-transferable paid leave for fathers is clearly linked to smaller motherhood penalties.

Finally, we need to address workplace discrimination against mothers and those making use of family benefits. Some American workplaces offer work-family benefits to some workers: paid leave, flexible scheduling, flexible work location, part-time options, and childcare assistance. But these benefits vary in availability and employees often fear reprisals from using these benefits. Moreover, sociologist Jennifer Glass’s research indicates that usage of these policies can exacerbate the motherhood penalty. Federal level work-family policies could equalize access to work-family benefits and reduce discrimination against workers who use legally sanctioned work-family benefits.

Policies that target the difficulties of balancing work and family responsibilities, as well as employer discrimination based on workers’ parental status, may most effectively reduce the gender pay gap.

Dr. Michelle Budig is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Social and Demographic Research Insitute, University of Massachusetts.