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Why Do Women Earn Less as Mothers and Men Earn More as Fathers?

For women, becoming a parent means you can expect to earn even less over your lifetime—unless you’re Marissa Mayer.
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The pattern only breaks, with women seeing a wage bonus for motherhood, among the top 90 to 95 percent of earners. (Photo: Fortune Live Media/Flickr)

The pattern only breaks, with women seeing a wage bonus for motherhood, among the top 90 to 95 percent of earners. (Photo: Fortune Live Media/Flickr)

For every dollar a man earns, a woman will earn 77 cents. That’s a statistic often cited by President Obama that has become a kind of political meme. Though it may be exaggerated, as the Washington Post reports, the gender pay gap is an undeniable reality, whether it’s Obama’s 23 percent or a less drastic five to nine percent, which the Post found in more controlled studies. But what’s even more shocking is how a gendered life experience, motherhood, impacts the pay gap.

In a study just released by the think tank Third Way, researcher and University of Massachusetts professor Michelle J. Budig found that becoming a parent means women are likely to earn less over their lifetimes, while fathers earn more. In other words, motherhood, even within a single family, can intensify the gender pay gap drastically. “For men it’s just the status of being a father that raises their wages,” Budig says. “For women, each additional child she has makes the penalty worse.”

Budig’s report is full of such statistics—surprising if not for their existence than for their scale. The “wage penalty” for women amounts to four percent per child, or even larger for women already at the low end of the income spectrum. Fathers, in contrast, net an 11.6 percent bonus no matter how many children they have (though only fathers who live with their children were measured). In finding the statistics, Budig controlled for various factors, including family structure, the family-friendliness of the job, and human capital aspects like education. That four percent “didn’t move at all with those factors,” she says. “We could not explain it with anything.”

"The motherhood penalty is smaller where high-quality, universal child care is available." This is particularly true for child care during ages zero to two.

Anything, that is, except for certain fundamental social issues that impact mothers differently than fathers. Budig is cautious in her pronouncements, but the underlying cause isn’t hard to guess. “We’re left with: It could be employer discrimination against women with children, or some kind of productivity difference that we’re unable to tap,” Budig says. “Employers may perceive job performance of women with kids differently.... If you don’t see a woman in the office and if she’s a mom you might assume she’s taking care of her kids.”

The perversity is that even being perceived as taking care of your kids instead of contributing at the office is seen as bad for business, even if it’s not the reality, and mother’s wages suffer as a result. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that women who do not get married “earn 96 cents for every dollar a man makes,” as the Washington Post cites, they’re probably confronting the motherhood penalty rather than confirming gender equality.

The lifestyle choices you make that confront social biases determine how much money you’re going to make, whether you work harder or not. It’s part of what Budig calls a “lifecycle effect.” “Among twenty-somethings, there’s a very small gender gap in pay,” she says. “Does that mean as that cohort ages that we don’t see the gender gap any more?” Nope. Though young women today are excelling in traditionally male corporate environments more than ever before, the equality seems to be just because they haven’t hit certain life milestones yet. “Things happen in people’s lives, like marriage and children, that trigger new behaviors and differential treatment in the workplace” between men and women, Budig says. The gender pay gap “widens as people enter their 30s and 40s—that’s where you see child-bearing and family foundation.”

What makes this situation even more drastic across the spectrum of income inequality is that how much money you’re already earning seems to impact how much you benefit or suffer from the motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus. “I was really surprised ... a lot of people talk about how incompatible professional work is with caring for kids,” Budig says. Yet “women at the top 90 to 95 percent of women earners actually get a wage bonus for motherhood.”

Call it the Marissa Mayer effect, after the CEO of Yahoo who reportedly has a nursery installed in her office. Neither their partners’ job status nor earnings level mattered. Instead, it’s that high-earning women can supplement or replace the duties of child care more easily than lower earners, helping them to improve work performance. “More affluent women replace their domestic work with purchased services—if they earn enough, then they get a nanny,” Budig says. “That enables them to focus on work, or even creates motivation for them to earn more money to pay for all that.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, “lower-wage women workers who have a hard time finding stable child care—when things fall apart, the first solution is to quit their job” to take care of their children, Budin says, thus hurting their earning power.

Budig’s solution to the motherhood penalty stems from this finding. Not having to worry so much about the responsibilities of motherhood connects with a lessened wage drop. “The motherhood penalty is smaller where high-quality, universal child care is available,” she says. This is particularly true for child care during ages zero to two. “Letting women have access to affordable, high-quality care means they have an ability to maintain their job,” Budig says. Having leave available to fathers also means a smaller motherhood penalty.

In the end, however, the biggest problem remains social bias. The study even confirms this fact. In an upcoming study on the fatherhood bonus across the globe, Budig found the “biggest fatherhood bonuses in countries that are really conservative,” including Germany, she says. The bonus is “smaller in egalitarian countries like Sweden and Denmark.” In other words, conservative views on gender equality coincide with an increase in the gender pay gap. I wish I were more surprised.