For each child a woman has, her wages will decrease by about 4 percent, even when a variety of factors are taken into account, according to a new report from Michelle J. Budig for Third Way. That means an average woman working full time will lose $1,200 in earnings for each of her children.
When a man has a child, however, his earnings increase by 6 percent with the same factors taken into account.
That means there is a substantial parenthood wage gap even when things like marital status, work hours, job characteristics, past experience, qualifications, and others are considered. It also can’t be explained by fathers working more after they have children or their wives working less and/or taking on more of the domestic duties.
While the data can’t test for whether fathers get better treatment just for being fathers, Budig notes, “evidence from experimental and audit studies suggest that fathers receive preferential treatment over childless men from potential employers.” She concludes, “Fatherhood is a valued characteristic of employers, signaling perhaps greater work commitment, stability, and deservingness.” Motherhood, on the other hand, may make people feel the opposite, as evidenced by studies showing mothers get penalized. (That’s despite the fact that becoming a mother makes women better employees.)
This difference in how mothers and fathers are rewarded at work may be part of why little progress is being made on the gender wage gap overall. The wage gap made steady progress between 1979 and 2003, shrinking from 63 cents for a man’s dollar to 81, but has stayed at about that level since then. Yet in 2012, unmarried women earned 96 percent of what unmarried men earned and childless women earned 93 percent of what childless men earned. The motherhood wage penalty is the same now as it was in 1977. “While the gender pay gap has been decreasing, the pay gap related to parenthood is increasing,” Budig writes.
It also helps explain why the gender wage gap is smaller for younger women — women ages 25 to 34 make more than 90 percent of what men make, but that shrinks to 78 percent for those ages 35 to 44 — given that many women will face the biggest demands from childrearing in their 30s.
Budig’s analysis hints at the factors behind the parental wage gap. She broke the data down by income level and found that women earning the lowest wages will see them decrease by nearly 7 percent for each child. By contrast, women in the highest income levels actually get a boost from children: the second-highest earners get 1.7 percent more for each child, while those at the very top get 5.4 percent. It’s even worse for younger children, as the wage penalty for each preschooler a low-income woman has is nearly five times greater than that for high-earning women.
This may be, she notes, because greater resources allow high-earning women to purchase services like nannies, cooks, and cleaners that allow them to keep working and “provid[e] both a motivation to increase earnings and the ability to reduce work-family conflict.” Women in low-wage jobs, on the other hand, tend to have fewer benefits, closer supervision, and less ability to change their scheduling or pacing at work. That means they may struggle the most to balance the higher demands of work with the demands at home, which they don’t have resources to cover, thus pulling them away from the workforce and higher earnings.
So if the United States had better work/family supports, things might be easier for low-income women. But that’s not how our policies are shaped. Out of 185 countries around the world, the U.S. is one of just three that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. We also don’t guarantee paid sick days or vacation and holiday time. That means low-income women, who are less likely to get these benefits, are put in a more difficult position when they need to take time to care for children. Child care also costs a fortune — more than public college tuition in many states — yet spending on helping families afford it has hit a decade low.
The wage penalty low-income women experience for children also creates a Catch-22: “the women who least can afford it pay the largest proportionate penalty for motherhood,” Budig writes. And low-income men don’t get enough of a fatherhood bonus to make up for their wives’ penalty. Professional and managerial men get bigger bonuses than men lower on the hierarchy, and college-educated men also get a bigger boost compared to those who didn’t graduate college.