The Motherhood Penalty Is About the Choices Women Don’t Have, Not the Ones They Make

The Motherhood Penalty Is About the Choices Women Don’t Have, Not the Ones They Make

The motherhood penalty refers to the negative impact becoming a mother has on the lifetime earnings of working women compared to their male colleagues. Whereas men who become fathers can actually see their earnings increase relative to their childless peers, mothers often see theirs stagnate or decline and never recover, contributing significantly to the earnings gap and wealth gap between men and women.

Responding to a recent sponsored study by Merrill Lynch and Bank of America on financial wellness issues specific to working women, Washington Examiner columnist Hadley Heath Manning objects to calling the motherhood penalty a “penalty,” arguing that it’s more of a tradeoff for women who just want to spend more time raising their children:

Among all demographic groups, who makes the most money? Married fathers. This isn’t because society values them more, but because they often make sacrifices to try to earn more to support their families. And who shares household earnings and the associated wealth accumulation with married fathers? Married mothers, of course. The term “motherhood penalty” fails to capture this. Married motherhood comes with great benefits, both financial and non-financial.

The reality is that mothers are paid less than non-mothers (and accumulate less wealth as a result) not because employers or “society” penalize us, but because, on aggregate, mothers make trade-offs that result in less money.

Manning’s argument is one we often hear from gender pay gap skeptics and critics of gender equality initiatives in the workplace. More importantly, it’s just plain wrong. Nobody expects women who freely choose to take multi-year career breaks to earn as much in their lifetimes as those who don’t.

The problem is that these choices are not always made freely, and when men and women make the same choices, the outcomes are very different.

The evidence of discrimination based on parental status is pretty ubiquitous at this point. For example, laboratory and audit studies show that employers rate mothers as less competent than non-mothers and offer lower starting salaries to mothers than non-mothers. None of these patterns hold true for men. In fact, fathers are often given higher starting salaries than non-fathers.

These types of controlled studies (where we can hold human capital characteristics constant) leave no doubt as to what’s causing the different outcomes: It’s gender bias. It’s not about effort, or fathers putting in more hours to support their families. These observations have been made consistently by scholars of gender in the workplace for more than a decade.

Do mothers make choices that slow down their career progression and cause them to earn less money? Undoubtedly, but Manning’s error is to assume that these choices are always made freely and not in response to external pressures. When employers treat women and men so differently, as study after study finds they do, this no doubt affects the responses and trade-off assessments couples make about how to manage their families.

If a mother knows that she will have difficulty finding a full-time job at an acceptable salary, whereas her male partner not only won’t face that difficulty but will even earn a premium for being a working father, this logically motivates them to decide that he will keep working full-time while she scales back her career to take care of their children. In other words, it’s discrimination that’s driving the so-called “choice” this couple makes.

Ultimately, Manning’s objection to acknowledging the documented fact of the motherhood penalty is just another way of legitimizing the status quo. Sadly, these legitimizing myths actually lead to further parental discrimination, causing harm to the many mothers who can’t afford to “lean out.” The illusion of choice upheld by commentators like Manning are more harmful to working mothers than they may realize.