Public Policy

Motherhood and Pay Inequality

It is a known fact that women of all races and educational levels earn less money than men of comparable backgrounds. Workplace discrimination has been considered the main factor.

Recent studies suggest other factors play a significant role. A series of articles* indicate that having children may adversely influence the gender pay inequality. The articles demonstrate that in both the United States and Europe the gender pay gap between men and women is small until the first child arrives. Then women’s earnings decline and their career path slows and in many cases drops. It never recovers. In the long term, a women will earn 20% less than her male counterpart over the course of her career. Having children was associated with 40% of the total pay gap in 1980, but now accounts for 80% of the total pay gap, the articles state. Discrimination and other factors make up the remaining 20% of the pay gap. Child care, particularly in younger years, is a time consuming responsibility. Someone has to do the work. It’s usually the woman.

Public policies such as paid leave, working at home after having children, and part-time work options are helpful initially. But these policies take women out of the work force and shorten their hours at work and consequently reduce their competitiveness. They don’t seem to work as intended. If men participated equally in these generous policies we might see change. But they do not.

Women who become mothers begin to gravitate toward particular jobs. They look for jobs with fewer hours and consequently lower wages. Many seek employment in the public sector. These jobs usually offer flexible working hours and leave days when children are sick. In other words, women gravitate toward family-friendly jobs. Their chances of moving into high paying jobs declines.

Why does the motherhood penalty exist? The articles offer two possible explanations. First explanation put forth is an environmental one. Social norms make it hard for mothers to stay in the competitive workforce. Public opinion data shows that most adults believe that women with young children should not hold full-time jobs. In addition the perception within the working community is that women are the primary caregivers to children and as such are unable to give the time needed for performing certain jobs. Second explanation is biological. Women may have a strong preference for spending more time with their children. Given that statement, perhaps parents have reached an uneasy decision to split child care unevenly. How can we remove the motherhood penalty? Can it be achieved if both men and women share the responsibility of caring for children, not just women?

More research is needed.

*Cited articles are:

  1. “Children Hurt Women’s Earnings, But Not Men’s ” Claire Cain Miller, the New York Times, February 2, 2018.
  2. The Gender Pay Gap Is the Result of Being a Parent, Not Discrimination ” Tim Worstall, Forbes, October 1, 2015.
  3. A Stunning Chart Shows the True Cause of the Gender Wage Gap” Vox, February 19, 2018.

Dorothy Lauterbach, Roslyn Metchis, Pat Farnell, Public Policy