The Wage Penalty For Becoming A Mother Is The Same Now As It Was In 1977

CREDIT: Shutterstock
CREDIT: Shutterstock

The motherhood penalty, or the gap in wages between women with children and those without, was about the same in 2007 as it was in 1977, even though the gender wage gap narrowed in that time, according to new research from Ipshita Pal and Jane Waldfogel for Columbia University.

They found that while the gap nearly disappeared by 1997, that doesn’t hold true when “demographic and human capital characteristics” are taken into account, most importantly whether women who face high wage penalties just opt to leave their jobs. When those are factored in, women with children have earned about 5 to 6 percent less than childless women pretty consistently, with the same gap in 1977 as in 2007.

The gap is smaller when part-time work is taken into account, but it still remains constant over the years. Controlling for what job or industry women choose also helps explain some of the gap, but again it still stays stable.

The researchers note that they can’t uncover whether discrimination helps cause the gap, nor can they look at work experience, job tenure, or how hard women work. But they do posit that one cause of the gap may be the fact that “policies to help mothers reconcile work and family have been surprisingly rigid in the U.S. over the past few decades.” They point to research showing that the motherhood penalty is smaller in countries with better policies, as well as the fact that paid family leave has been shown to boost women’s wages enough to offset the motherhood penalty, but the Family and Medical Leave Act, which only guarantees unpaid maternity leave, doesn’t have that effect. “[T]he lack of strong work-family policies could explain to a large extent why the motherhood penalty has remained relatively stable in the U.S. over time,” they write.

Indeed, over the past 20 years, the U.S. failed to implement guaranteed paid family leave, while virtually every other country in the world has paid maternity leave. Other countries also significantly ramped up how much they spent on child care, from .35 percent of GDP to .47 percent on average, while the U.S. went from .03 percent to just .11. While the country nearly had universal child care in the 1970s, the bill was vetoed by President Nixon and the issue hasn’t gotten much legislative traction since.

There are some telling demographic differences in the motherhood penalty, however. The penalty has dropped significantly for married mothers while it rose sharply in the 1980s and 1990s for single mothers. The gap in wages between a married mother and a married woman without children shrank from 8 to 9 percent in the 1970s to 3 percent in the 1990s and 2000s. That period of time “roughly corresponds with the period when men’s child care and household work involvement was increasing,” they note, which may be part of what helped it shrink.

Fathers have in fact nearly tripled how much time they spend on child care since the 1960s and more than doubled the time they spend on housework. But even though women spend much more time in paid employment outside the home, they are still doing more of the work inside the home than men. Today’s moms spend more time in child care than they did in the 1960s.

The gap also changes when broken down by race. White women have experienced a steady 5.5 to 7.5 percent motherhood penalty with a big jump in 1987 to 13.5 percent, while black women have had a gap of 7.6 to 8 percent with a jump to 12.8 percent in 1997. But Hispanic women haven’t had a significant penalty except for one year, 1997, when they saw a 4.6 percent gap.

While the researchers don’t explain why Hispanic women don’t suffer a gap, they do note that welfare reform may have impacted black and single women. The 1990s reforms instated work requirements that pushed many low-income, single, black mothers into the workforce, and the researchers note, “If those newly entering the labor market had lower skills than the women who worked prior to welfare reform, this change in the composition of the workforce could have led to an increase.”

The only other group that the researchers found didn’t have a penalty were the lowest educated, or those without a high school diploma. The penalty has stayed constant for mothers at every education level except for those with just a high school diploma, who have seen a significant decline over the years.