Motherhood Wage Penalty: A large pay gap exists between mothers and non-mothers

On Wednesday, we covered the wage gap as our wonky word for the week. This got me thinking and I wanted to continue with the subject of pay differences between groups. So today let’s talk about the motherhood wage penalty and dive deeper into the causes of why mothers may experience greater loss in wages and career opportunities compared to women who do not have children.

We know from Wonky Word Wednesday that on average, women working in America are paid just 77 cents to every dollar men are paid. Compounding this income difference is the fact that women are also more likely than men to take time off work to care for their children or elderly parents. Research has found that both the wage gap and the different work histories between women and men causes women and their families to lose $431,000 on average over their lifetime.

However, for women with young children, the wage gap between mothers and non-mothers can be even greater than the pay gap between men and women. This is called the motherhood wage penalty.

Estimates suggest that for each child under the age of 6, mothers experience a 7% decrease in income compared to women without children. So for example, a full-time working mom with 2 children under the age of 6 may have an annual income of $43,000 on average, while a working woman with no children will earn $50,000. The mother loses out on $7,000 each year, this loss of income builds over time, and the mom likely has fewer opportunities to be promoted because she needs more time off to care for her young children. Arguably, this mother is even more affected by the motherhood penalty than the working woman is affected by the gender pay gap since she has to provide for her young children and also balance work and home responsibilities.

So what causes this penalty? Well, like the wage gap, there are “measurable factors” that researchers can definitively point to that result in the motherhood gap, including:

  • Women are more likely to take time off to care for family a member, which naturally reduces their work presence and decreases their wages over time.
  • Women with children are more likely to work in lower-paying jobs. One reason may be because mothers may forgo high-paying jobs for ones that pay less but provide flexible scheduling options so they can focus on taking care of their families but still work.

Yet, like the gender wage gap, a portion of the gap between mothers and non-mothers cannot be explained and many believe the following factors contribute to this:

  • Mothers may be perceived as less productive. Some employers may discriminate against a woman because they believe that she will need more time off to be with her children, which reduces her presence and productivity levels at work.
  • Some employers may think that a mother will be less productive because she is exhausted from taking care of her children and the household.
  • Some employers may assume that because a woman may need more leave to care for her family, she is less committed to the job and less likely to stick around.
  • Some employers may also believe that because young mothers are primarily concerned with taking care of their children, they have had less opportunity to grow professionally (like their non-mother or male counterparts) and are thus less experienced and qualified for the job.

In Montana, over 18,000 children under the age of six live in households with single-female breadwinners. These mothers are responsible for working and providing financially for their children. After a long day at work they come home and begin a “second shift” cooking, shopping, cleaning, and caring for their families. Simply because they are female and mothers, they face a larger loss in income and job opportunities than men and non-mothers in the state, yet arguably, they are the group that needs this income the most. Policies like paid family leave would provide single moms (and all working parents) the chance to continue making a living, take necessary time off to care for children and elderly parents, and return to work after leave.


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