Skip to main content
Join Now

< Back to All

The impact of motherhood on pay

June 12, 2017

By Michael Burns, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Gender pay disparity and the many reasons for it, continues to be studied by researchers.  A new study by researchers at Wellesley, Harvard, Boston College and the Institute for Social Research in Oslo, Sweden identifies motherhood as a big impediment to equal pay as women’s careers progress. 

The study, titled The Expanding Gender Earnings Gap: Evidence from the LEHD-2000 Census, looked at women’s pay as it progressed through their career and aging. Starting with pay when graduating from high school or college, the study found men and women make pretty much the same. However, starting at age 25 women’s pay starts to dramatically fall behind men’s pay to the point where at age 45 high school educated women make only 55% of what comparably aged men do and college graduate women make only 28% of what comparably educated men make.

The study was based on statistics taken from the US Census* and looks at the broadest group of people over time. It demonstrates what many people may have believed – that after age 25 (when more women have children and leave the workforce) is when the wage gap begins to increase between men and women.

The study asserts, “The big reason that having children, and even marrying in the first place, hurts women’s pay relative to men’s is that the division of labor at home is still unequal, even when both spouses work full time. That’s especially true for college-educated women in high-earning occupations. Children are particularly damaging to their careers.”

Sari Pekkala Kerr, one of the principal authors of this study, states, “It is logical for couples to decide that the person who earns less, usually a woman, does more of the household chores and child care.” But it’s also a reason women earn less in the first place. “That reinforces the pay gap in the labor market, and we’re trapped in this self-reinforcing cycle,” she said.

This study challenges at least one misconception. That being, the often surmised premise that gender pay disparity may be primarily driven by predatory pay practices the male dominated workplace uses to discriminate against women. The study points to the many decisions women are faced with that negatively impact their pay, such as: deciding to marry and have children, the division of labor at home, or a women’s choice to give up job opportunities by either moving or staying put for the sake of their husband’s job. Other decisions also come into play and collectively suppress women’s pay during the years of 26 and 45 – prime years for career development.

Employers reward long working hours and less work flexibility, and this negatively impacts women who must choose to leave work or cut back hours to take the lead raising children and doing more of the household chores. Further, seniority and experience pay off much more for men, the study asserts, than for women. These two elements in a progressing career are supported by pay systems that increase pay each year (annual merit pay). Women that leave the workforce sacrifice that potential annual bump in pay that for many men continues to build onto annual earnings.

The study notes that a college educated male improves his earnings by 77% during the same period (age 25-45) that women’s earnings decline or stall. Men without college degrees experience the same increase in pay during only the first decade of their careers, but by age 45 women without college degrees catch back up to comparably situated men. 

To correct this perpetual cycle of pay disparity, social scientists are naturally looking to employers as well as public policy to correct for this pay disparity. Some suggestions to address this scenario are employers putting less priority on long hours for career progression and the government subsidizing child care and moderate-length parental leave. 

ASE can help employers address pay and work-life policies and practices. For information on ASE resources and services contact Kristen Cifolleli, Director, Research Services at  This fall ASE’s new EEO/AA and Diversity Conference has an entire track on pay equity, disparity and discrimination.

*The researchers used demographic data from the 2000 census and work history from 1995 to 2008 from the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program, which covers private-sector companies. These two data sets have rarely been combined, which allowed the researchers to connect people’s work histories with demographic data like age, education, marriage and childbirth.  

Share On: