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‘Motherhood Penalty’ Is Greatest for Well-Paid Women

For highly skilled women with well-paying jobs, having children means sacrificing income.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

We have long known that motherhood reduces women’s earnings. Many new moms temporarily step away from their jobs, interrupting their career trajectories; others stay on, but find themselves struggling to maintain a dual focus.

But which women are most impacted by this “motherhood penalty”? Newly published research provides a clear answer: those with the strongest skill sets and the best-paying jobs.

A new study reports the long-term earnings of white women in that category are reduced by an average of 10 percent for every child they have or adopt.

“Loss of every year of work caused by motherhood is much more costly for their future wages, even in proportionate terms, than it is for other groups of women,” writes lead author Paula England, a New York University sociologist. She reports white women in lower-paid positions endure a significantly smaller penalty — between 4 and 7 percent per child.

The study, published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review, used data on 3,216 non-Hispanic white women who participated in the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. They were surveyed that year, when they were 14 to 21 years old, and again periodically through 2010, when they were between the ages of 45 and 52.

The researchers looked at each woman’s annual wages, the number of children she had given birth to or adopted in any given year, and her level of cognitive skills, as measured in a standardized test all participants took in 1980.

They found the potential income women sacrifice for having a child varies substantially. Highly skilled, relatively highly paid women — those in such occupations as nursing, teaching, and management — were penalized the most. For every child they had, their long-term earnings were an average of 10 percent below where they would otherwise be.

Strikingly, this was true in spite of the fact that, of all the women surveyed, they had the most career experience overall, and were the least likely to take significant amounts of time off after having a child.

“Any tiny bit (of time) they drop out causes them to lose big raises, because these are the women who get the big raises,” England explained in an email exchange. In terms of income, she wrote, they are “on an escalator, so there is more to lose in raises if they leave even for a little bit.”

In contrast, she adds, when lower-skilled, lower-income workers — women who work in such areas as retail sales, or as home health aides — return to the job after taking a year off, “their pay isn’t that much different than it would have been if they stayed in.”

Surprisingly, the researchers did not find this same dynamic in their parallel analysis of 1,442 black women. Overall, they found “black women have lower wages than white women, but they have lower total penalties for motherhood.”

England notes that the women who suffer the greatest penalties “are typically affluent, because their own earnings are still relatively high, and many of them are married to high-earning men. Given their relative privilege, we might still want to give priority to policies, such as child-care subsidies, that help low-income women.”

Nevertheless, these results help explain the 2015 finding that women in professional and managerial positions experience a bigger-than-average gender pay gap, earning 71 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues. (The overall figure is 78 cents.) Their pay is predicated on an unfortunate maxim: Raise your kids, forgo that raise.