Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Great Divide: Working Moms Vs. Childless Women

The wage penalty for working mothers is five percent+ per child!

Source: Pixabay

As significant as the differences are between men and women in most workplaces, the

other glaring gap is between women with children and those without. Motherhood can be a considerable employment handicap because very few jobs accommodate mothers.

In and of itself, being a working mother does not adversely affect a child's outcome. An analysis by Rachael Lucas-Thompson of many different studies done in the past fifty years and discussed in the Psychological Bulletin concluded that a mother's employment during a child's first three years did not have a negative affect on the child's later achievement or cause more behavioral problems. Nonetheless, women may experience negative treatment in the workforce because of the children they have. For instance, pregnancy discrimination cases in the United States rose 31 percent between 1992 and 2005--a period when the birth rate fell. About half of the cases resulted because women lost their jobs during pregnancy or shortly after a return to work.

Barriers for Working Moms

Among research scientists, being a woman is not what holds them back as Jeneen Interlandi outlined for Newsweek: "The Center for American Progress (CAP) reported that family obligations (read: child rearing) are still pushing young female researchers out of science. The findings build on a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report from earlier this year that also dissected the biases against women in science, but concluded that much progress was being made. Taken together, the two studies suggest that the stumbling block for women researchers is not being a woman but being a mother."

Female lawyers don't do much better when it comes to career advancement. Many law firms put their female attorneys with children on what is known as the "mommy track." Women who have no children advance faster into higher paying positions than mothers do. The "mommy track" transformed into the idea of the "flex track," which allows mothers and other people with unique situations the opportunity to work from home at least part of the time. Some large corporations and forward-thinking smaller organizations have instituted flexible hours including working from home, however, these employers are a new breed and far from the norm.

When Ursula von der Leyen, Family Minister, an appointed position in German government, was introducing new work-family policies, she noted that "There is a glass ceiling in Germany, but it's not a glass ceiling for women, it's a glass ceiling for women with children." That's true in most countries and has its effects right from the starting gate-when you're being hired.

The Motherhood Penalty

Shelley Correll, a Stanford sociologist, conducted a research experiment in which raters reviewed almost identical resumes. They differed only in parental status. Fathers and childless women were rated much higher than mothers on competency, commitment to work, likelihood of being promoted, and recommendation to hire. The raters offered mothers the lowest wages-they averaged $13,000 lower than wages for fathers. According to her study, "Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?" if you are mother and fortunate enough to be hired, you will probably start at a salary that is over 7 percent lower than childless women are offered.

Michelle Budig, associate professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts's Center for Public Policy, testified before the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee, and underscored the gender pay gap for mothers and women. She said, "The finding that having children reduces women's earnings, even among workers with comparable qualifications, experience, work hours, and jobs, is now well established. All women experience reduced earnings for each additional child they have." In one study, "The Wage Penalty for Motherhood" published in American Sociological Review, Budig found that the wage penalty is significant: five percent per child! And that's a conservative number.

In the majority of families, a woman's income has become crucial, if not simply helpful, for managing the family budget. Because pregnancy and raising children affects a mother's position and salary, more parents today seriously consider the pros and cons of motherhood and how many children they will have.

Have current attitudes and employer practices influenced your childbearing decisions?
Do you think motherhood has (or will) affected your advancement and/or salary?

For more on this topic, see: Women at the Top: Not So Fast and The Kid-Ceiling: Women Feel It Long Before Seeing Glass-Ceiling

Copyright 2011 by Susan Newman

More from Susan Newman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today