Wellesley College economist Sari Kerr is the co-author of two new papers examining the gender pay gap in the US, along with Claudia Goldin of Harvard, Claudia Olivetti of Boston College and Erling Barth of the Institute for Social Research in Oslo. In an interview with Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times, published on Saturday, Kerr discussed what these studies revealed about the prominent role the motherhood penalty appears to play in creating that gap:
The new working paper, which covered the broadest group of people over time, found that between ages 25 and 45, the gender pay gap for college graduates, which starts close to zero, widens by 55 percentage points. For those without college degrees, it widens by 28 percentage points. Much of that happens early in people’s careers, during women’s childbearing years. The American Economic Review paper, which examined people born around 1970, found that almost all of the pay gap for college graduates came from ages 26 to 33. …
Twenty-seven percent of the overall pay gap is from men being more likely to jump to higher-paying firms, the economists found. When married women leave jobs, they are less likely to get a big pay bump as a result. Previous research has found they are more likely to leave without another job lined up; they may move for their husband’s job or take time off with children. But the bulk of the pay gap — 73 percent, they found — is from women not getting raises and promotions at the rate of men within companies.
Kerr and her co-authors are not the first to posit that the motherhood penalty—that is, the loss in earnings and job status women experience as a result of taking on parenting responsibilities—is a key factor, if not the key factor, in the gender pay gap in the long run: A study in the UK last year found the same, while other studies there corroborated Kerr’s findings that women get raises and promotions at slower rates than men do.
The finding that the motherhood penalty has a stronger impact on women with college educations also jibes with a study published last December showing that high-income, high-skill white women lost the most income per child relative to their male peers, compared to women of other ethnicities, skill levels, and incomes. In other words, the more income and status women enjoy in their jobs, the more they have to lose when they become mothers.
Another economist who is concerned about the relationship between motherhood and women’s economic participation is Janet Yellen, the chair of the US Federal Reserve, who highlighted this theme in a speech on women in the workforce at Brown University earlier this month:
One of the primary factors contributing to the failure of these highly skilled women to reach the tops of their professions and earn equal pay is that top jobs in fields such as law and business require longer workweeks and penalize taking time off. This would have a disproportionately large effect on women, who continue to bear the lion’s share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities. Within academia, the short timeframe in which assistant professors have to prove themselves good candidates for tenure by publishing typically overlaps with the period in which many women contemplate starting a family, forcing difficult trade-offs.
Complicating matters for American women is that the US is the world’s only advanced economy without a law mandating paid leave for new mothers (or both parents), and while US employers are increasingly seeing the wisdom of expanding their parental leave policies to better retain talented women, many still do not offer paid parental leave, while the number of women taking maternity leave each year appears strangely static.
Lack of access to parental leave and child care were unusually hot-button issues in last year’s US presidential election, and while President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka have expressed support for some kind of policy that would address these challenges, it remains unclear what, if anything, his administration will do in that regard. In a Mother’s Day post on Sunday, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg joined the ranks of the US’s high-profile advocates for public policy solutions to help working mothers:
The United States is one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave – and we’re the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave. That means many moms are forced to return to work right after giving birth to keep their jobs. They deserve more support. So do dads, LGBTQ parents, adoptive parents — families of all kinds. All of us will have times when we need to take care of ourselves and our relatives. We shouldn’t have to risk losing a job or being able to meet the basic needs of our families to do that.
And we need affordable child care. Child care for two children exceeds the median annual rent in all 50 states. How are parents supposed to work if they don’t have a safe and affordable place to leave their kids?
The ad agency Mother also called attention to the motherhood penalty this Mother’s Day, Minda Smiley reports at the Drum, with a stunt that highlighted the challenge many mothers face in the job market due to the often years-long gaps they often have in their résumés from the time they spent raising children:
The result is The Pregnancy Pause, a “company” on LinkedIn that counts all moms as employees. Moms can simply add their new job as “mom” at The Pregnancy Pause to their LinkedIn Profile, and voila — resume gap gone. Moms are encouraged to add in job descriptions under their new title as well, like “designer of human life” or “hands-on experience in development.”
While the creation of The Pregnancy Pause may just be another cutesy agency marketing stunt, the hope is that it will help employers realize that taking time off from work to raise a child is a job in itself, not simply a vacation.