The Real Explanation for the Gender Pay Gap: Motherhood

When men and women complete school and enter the workforce, they’re typically paid at comparable levels. But before long, a gender pay gap appears, and it continues to widen over the next two decades.

So what explains that change? The answer can be found by examining when the gender pay gap opens up most significantly. That chasm appears in a worker’s late 20s to mid-30s, according to two new studies — in short, the period when many women have children. Unmarried women without children continue earning closer to that of their male counterparts.

The reason that having children handicaps women’s pay relative to men’s is that the division of labor at home remains unequal, even in scenarios where both spouses work full time. That remains especially true for college-educated women in high-salary professions: Children are particularly detrimental to their careers.

But even married women with no children earn less, studies show, because women are more likely to give up job opportunities to either move or remain where they are for the sake of their male partner’s job. Married women might also accept a less demanding job in anticipation of children, or employers may decline to give them extra responsibility assuming that they’ll have babies down the road and need time off.

“One person focuses on career, and the other one does the lion’s share of the work at home,” said Sari Kerr, an economist at Wellesley College and an author of both papers. One was published in the American Economic Review ; the other was published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

It can make sense when a couple decides that the person who earns less – typically the woman – will take on more of the household work and childcare, according to Ms. Kerr. However, that’s also a significant reason that women earn less to begin with. “That reinforces the pay gap in the labor market, and we’re trapped in this self-reinforcing cycle,” she explained.

Some women earn at lower rates after having kids, but many don’t, and employers still compensate then less, presumable because they worry that the woman will be less committed, according to research.

Rather than advising women to avoid marriage and children, the solution to greater pay equality, according social scientists say should reside in the workplace and public policy that applies to both genders. Measures could include companies placing less priority on long hours and face time, along with government-subsidized child care and moderate-length parental leave.

As the data suggest college-educated women make about 90% as much as men at age 25, but only 55% as much at age 45.

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.

A significant part of that change occurs early in people’s careers, during childbearing years. The American Economic Review paper, which looked at Americans born around 1970, determined that nearly the entire pay gap for college graduates came from ages 26 to 33.

The pay gap is wider for college graduates since their earnings are also higher, and men disproportionately dominate the highest-paying jobs. These positions also give more value to long, inflexible hours.

27% 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 much more unlikely to get a big pay bump as a result. Research has shown that they are more likely to leave a position without having another job lined up, and often move for their husband’s job or to take leave for their children.

But the lion’s share of the pay gap (a whopping 73%) is from women not getting raises and promotions at the rate of men within companies. Seniority and experience pay off much more for men than for women.

“On every possible front, women are getting the short end of the stick,” Ms. Kerr said. “Whether they’re changing jobs or trying to stick with the current employer, the returns are always smaller.”

The average college-educated man, for instance, improves his earnings by 77% from age 25 to 45, while similar women improve their earnings by only 31%. Men lacking a college education increase their pay much faster than women in similar positions during the first decade of their careers, but by age 45, women catch up.

Even women who catch up, however, pay a long-term price. They’ve lost a significant amount of pay — in wages, raises and retirement savings — along the way.


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