Research suggests that women’s earning potential isn’t damaged if they have babies, but when.
Amid all the recent conversations about the gender pay gap, one subject that has arisen frequently is motherhood. Depending on your stance on the debate, women becoming parents is either something they are unfairly penalised for in terms of career progression – thanks to the dominance of a male-oriented workplace culture that fails to provide flexible hours or childcare solutions – or a ‘lifestyle choice’ for which they ultimately deserve to take the hit.
Whatever your perspective, it’s undeniable that motherhood is a powerful factor that contributes to the gender pay gap.
However, according to a recent study, what matters is not if women become mothers, but when. The research, published by the US Census Bureau and highlighted by the New York Times, shows that women who have their first baby between the ages of 25 and 35 never end up closing the pay gap with their husbands.
Women who have their first child before they are 25 or after their 35th birthday, in contrast, eventually catch up with their husbands’ earnings.
Disturbingly, women who earned more than their husbands before becoming mothers ended up having the biggest post-baby pay gap in their marriages. This suggests that high-earning women are even more liable than lower-earning women to see their careers hindered by motherhood.
Of course, the decade between 25 and 35 is when many people are building their careers in earnest: by our late 20s and early 30s, most of us are relatively established at work, but have yet to secure very senior positions.
However, this also happens to be the time period that most women begin having babies. The average age for first-time mothers in England and Wales in 2016 (the most recent year that figures are available) was 28.8, while the average age for all mothers was 30.4 years. In the US, where the recent study was conducted, the average age for women to give birth for the first time is 28.
Thanks to issues with affordable childcare and limited paternity leave, new mothers often have few options but to take a break from their careers at a time when their male colleagues are climbing the professional ladder.
This most recent research backs up the findings of several other studies that highlight how women’s careers are affected by motherhood. One Danish study published in January this year concluded that “most of the remaining gender inequality in earnings is due to children”, and that having children ultimately led to a gender earning gap of around 20%.
In January, meanwhile, a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that women who work part-time in the UK after having children can expect to earn significantly less than their male counterparts in the long run. By the time their first child is 20, researchers said, mothers will earn almost a third less per hour on average than fathers with similar levels of education.
So what’s the solution? In a wide-ranging review of the motherhood pay gap published in 2015, academics Damian Grimshaw and Jill Rubery – professors at the Alliance Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester – proposed several policies that could be adopted to help mothers preserve successful careers.
These included adequate parental leave for both women and men, with specific provision for fathers; accessible, affordable and high-quality childcare; flexible working arrangements; the elimination of maternity discrimination; and creating a family-friendly workplace culture.
One thing is clear: the gender pay gap won’t close unless a concerted effort is made to keep mothers in the workforce.
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