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Can Women Reduce the Career Cost of Motherhood?

Many strategies women use to reduce the cost of motherhood may prove ineffective

Extensive sociological research documents a career cost to motherhood, both in terms of wages (Correll and Benard 2010; Miller 2011) and occupational status (Abendroth, Huffman, and Treas 2014). In general, both earnings and occupational status increase over the course of one’s career. However, motherhood is associated not only with an immediate drop in earnings and status but also by slower subsequent growth in both earnings and occupational status over time (Abendroth et al. 2014; Miller 2011). That is, the birth of a child is not only a discrete event that has an immediate, negative impact on women’s careers. It also signals a transition to a permanent new status—motherhood—and to a slower-growth career trajectory.

Some women willingly sideline their careers to focus on their children, but even for these women the lower pay and status associated with the motherhood penalty is unfair because it results in part from discrimination against mothers, regardless of their demonstrated competence (Correll and Benard 2010). Moreover, women are increasingly committed to their careers. In a recent survey of young adults (ages 18-34), more young women than men stated that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is “one of the most important things” or” very important” in their lives (Pew Research 2012). Clearly, mitigating the negative career impact of motherhood is of vital importance. Yet research suggests that many individual-level strategies, such as delaying age at first birth or having only one child, are of limited efficacy.

Becoming a mother has both an immediate, negative impact on women’s wages and also permanently reduces their rate of wage growth and occupational advancement (Abendroth et al. 2014; Miller 2011). In part, this effect can be explained by women’s working hours—motherhood is associated with a reduction in working hours which lowers earnings and occupational status (Abendroth et al. 2014; Miller 2011). This suggests one path by which women might counter the negative career effects of motherhood (by working longer hours). However, reduced working hours may result in part from discrimination (e.g., less responsibility and fewer opportunities at work) rather than from mothers’ preferences. In addition, working longer hours reduces mothers’ time with children, requiring a substitute for maternal care which may not be readily available (access to quality daycare is limited: Clawson and Gerstel 2002).

Although delaying the timing of the transition to motherhood may seem like an obvious means of lessoning its impact, research is mixed. Miller (2011) estimates that a year delay in first birth increases women’s earnings by 9%. The reduction to women’s wage growth is smaller for women who delay motherhood, in part because such women tend to work longer hours after birth (Miller 2011). Interestingly, this effect is larger for women with college degrees and for women in professional and managerial occupations—those women who generally enjoy the steepest wage growth benefit most from delaying birth. However, the potential career benefits of delaying motherhood are inconsistent across other, similar analyses. For example, using longitudinal data on women from several European countries, Abendroth et al (2014) do not find that delaying the timing of a first birth lessons its impact on occupational status over time. The first birth is associated with an immediate drop in occupational status and a slower growth trajectory, compared to childless women, and the career cost of becoming a mother is not lessened by delaying the first birth.

Some women may choose to have fewer children (or only one child) in order to reduce the career cost of motherhood but this may not be an effective strategy. Abendroth et al (2014) find that the first birth is the most damaging to occupational status, causing an immediate drop in status and slower growth in status over time. In other words, new mothers suffer a decrease in status at the time of birth and fall further behind as their child ages. Having a second or third birth causes another immediate drop in status but generally does not further flatten women’s status growth trajectory. If it is the first birth that is most detrimental to women’s occupational advancement, opting to have only one child is an ineffective strategy to reduce the negative career effects of motherhood.

However, there is some evidence that employing substitutes for maternal care may reduce the occupational motherhood penalty. Anecdotal evidence and profiles of top CEOs suggest that women who are extremely successful in their careers without opting out of motherhood often have stay-at-home husbands (Hymowitz 2012). Obviously, not all women can afford (or desire) stay-at-home husbands or even full-time nannies, but better childcare options may help women combine career success and motherhood. Indeed, Abendroth et al (2014) find that motherhood does less damage to women’s occupational status in countries that prioritize public childcare and early childhood education. Such programs may allow women to take less time off work (resulting in less real or perceived depreciation of human capital and thus a smaller drop in occupational status) and to work longer hours after returning to work. In addition, by supporting women’s employment rather than encouraging women to opt out of employment, such policies may reduce negative stereotypes of motherhood as incompatible with career success. Thus, although doubtless controversial, expansions in the availability of quality childcare may promote gender equity in employment.

In any case, the importance of national policy context demonstrates that the motherhood penalty is not entirely within the control of individual mothers, as does extensive evidence of discrimination against mothers (e.g., Correll and Benard 2010). As with many dimensions of social inequality, individual behavior can influence individual outcomes, but such strategies do not alter the underlying, structural determinants of inequality. The occupational motherhood penalty is a social problem, not just an individual problem, and eliminating it will entail social and institutional change.


Abendroth, Anja-Kristin, Matt L. Huffman, and Judith Treas. 2014. "The Parity Penalty in Life Course Perspective: Motherhood and Occupational Status in 13 European Countries." American Sociological Review 79(5):993-1014.

Clawson, Dan and Naomi Gerstel. 2002. "Caring for our Young: Child Care in Europe and the United States." Contexts 1(4):28-35.

Correll, Shelley J. and Stephen Benard. 2010. "Normative Discrimination and the Motherhood Penalty." Gender and Society 24(5):616-646.

Hymowitz, Carol. 2012. “Behind Every Great Woman.” Business Week.…

Miller, Amalia. 2011. "The Effect of Motherhood Timing on Career Path." Journal of Population Economics 24(3):1071-1100.

Pew Research. 2012. “A Gender Reversal on Career Aspirations.”…

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