The world’s worst-kept secret is the pay penalty that comes with motherhood; the gender gap continues to remain invisible to a social conscience. Now, new research underscores the persistent rigidity of this model: even today, women’s incomes continue to decline after childbirth.
“The gender revolution has stalled and women remain economically vulnerable,” mentioned sociologist Kelly Musick of Cornell University. Musick, along with Pilar Gonalons-Pons of the University of Pennsylvania and Christine Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, studied American couples over a 30-year period. They analyzed their entire lives via documents: detailed survey results and administrative tax records provided them with data on income, birth and marriage dates, and education levels.
Regardless of the partners’ level of income or education, a woman’s salary has always gone down after having a child. The research has been published in Population and Development Review last month. What is worrying is how this pattern may play out during the pandemic. “The pandemic is highlighting the pitfalls of our self-help approach to managing work and family,” Musick said. These findings are only universally applicable; there is a great deal of research on the prevalence of maternity-related wage penalty in the economically wealthy and weaker strata of society.
As women yearn to get back to work, pay penalties may be more onerous amid a pandemic that has reinforced inequality gender roles. “The Covid19 pandemic could lock in the income imbalance, as mothers who have retired to care for children face poorer job prospects…” the researchers noted.
Researchers have also argued that the gender wage gap continues to exist primarily as a penalty for having children. Why is there a penalty for motherhood in the first place, you ask? “It’s the question of the Holy Grail,” mentioned Henrik Kleven, an economist at Princeton University who has conducted research on the gender wage gap.
Motherhood places women in a perpetual caregiving role; women’s earnings then drop sharply and never fully recover. At the same time, research has shown that men’s earnings remain largely unchanged after parenthood. The maternity pay penalty, in some cases, is attributed to women’s “choice” to work less. The authors of this studyfor example, have argued that “because mothers choose to work fewer hours, or in lower-paying but more child-friendly jobs, or not at all when their children are very young”, they continue to shoulder the disproportionate impact of gender norms.
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But there is very little choice and agency for women operating in the workspace. “It’s not a choice if you’re the only parent who can take time off immediately after having a baby,” Liesl Goecker noted in The Swaddle. “In countries like India, with its six months of maternity leave but no commensurate mandate for paternity leave, women have no choice but to sacrifice their earnings to care for children. This puts them on a path to lower lifetime incomes, making them more likely to be financially dependent on a partner, and their work and income more available if household needs increase – creating a vicious cycle of low income and financial dependence. Studies since 2008 show how “women [who score in the upper third on a standardized test] benefit from a net salary reduction of 8% during the first five years following childbirth.
Financial dependence is the product of multiple loopholes. Most countries do not have a mandatory paid postpartum leave policy (for both parents); there is no affordable and accessible child care system. As Goecker mentioned, care responsibilities fall on mothers because their work and income are deprioritized.
During the pandemic, a series of cultural stigmas have aligned to weaken women’s position in the labor market. Paid and unpaid work has been devalued; logistical shortcomings (such as no transportation) made it more difficult for them to travel for work or study; increased home care responsibilities kept them indoors even more. In an American survey from May and June, one in four women became unemployed during the pandemic due to a lack of childcare during the pandemic. Even in India, there are fears that the pandemic will lock women – especially engaged in agricultural and industrial work and domestic help – out of the workforce. “Whatever social and economic gains Indian women have made over the past decade have largely been wiped out during the Covid19 period,” mentioned Amarjeet Kaur, Secretary General of the All India Trade Union Congress.
This is pushing for a radical reassessment of how we view motherhood. The childcare conundrum must look at welfare schemes, not mothers. A 2020 study advocated for a promising way to close the gap, positioning high-quality child care through a social welfare lens. “It has a huge impact,” said Emily Nix, assistant professor of finance and business economics at USC Marshall School of Business. “It reduces the child penalty by 25% during the treatment years. It won’t completely close the gap, but I’d say 25% is a lot better than zero. It’s slow and steady, but it’s progress.
It can be said that the crisis took years to prepare; the wage penalty has been enforced ruthlessly for decades. The pandemic must be a trigger to renew the conversation about building an infrastructure of care, centered on empathy and inclusion. It’s no wonder many women prioritize diversity, inclusivity and wellness when asked what they want from the workplace.
The needs of working women were first denied, then deprioritized, and now ignored. How we react now will shape gender inequalities in work and family for decades to come.