Money Is Misleading When You Want Work-Life Balance So I’m Not Buying The ‘Mommy Penalty’

shutterstock_133189400 (1)new report published by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that women with minor children earn less than women without kids.  Experts are calling it the “mommy penalty” but I’m not buying it.  The situation is far more complicated than the bottom line.

First of all, we’re not comparing apples with apples.  The mothers I know, like myself, have taken time off of work altogether to raise their children or have switched jobs to accommodate more flexible schedules.  If someone goes to a smaller company to work an environment where 15-hour days are the norm, they can expect to get paid less.  This would apply equally to a man and a woman.  Yet some are still calling foul.

“I think parenthood is like the new site of gender discrimination,” said Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Budig’s research has shown that women generally make less money for each child they have and puts forward some theories as to why.

Mothers may earn less than other women because having children causes them to (1) lose job experience, (2) be less productive at work, (3) trade off higher wages for motherfriendly jobs, or (4) be discriminated against by employers. The portion of the motherhood penalty we cannot explain probably results from effects of motherhood on productivity and/or from employers’ discrimination against mothers. While the benefits of mothering diffuse widely, to the employers, neighbors, friends, spouses, and children of the adult who previously received the mothering, the costs are borne disproportionately by mothers.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to see an earnings boost — men with minor children out-earn their childless counterparts according to Budig’s research — sometimes referred to as the daddy bonus.  Eyeroll.

I’m not rolling my eyes at the cutesy terms and I’m not really discounting the findings. However, what I challenge is the motivation.  This research would have us believing that employers are looking at these people, sitting from high above, deciding that “yes, daddies are more worthy and deserve more of my money,” while mommies are inferior by nature and should earn less.  I just don’t see it that way in America where everything is driven by the bottom line.  If a father has a family to support and is the primary (or only) breadwinner, he is going to work harder.  He will be seen as more stable and more dependable by his employer because he will be afraid of losing his job and his means to support his family, especially when compared to his single counterpart.  As far as I can tell they don’t compare fathers to mothers, only mothers to childless and fathers to childless.

All of this underscores my biggest issues around the U.S. workplace — that money is the number one indication of success or value and the number of hours worked determines your value to your employer — making work-life balance elusive for anyone (parent or not) who wants to pursue it.

(photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock)

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  • NYBondLady

    Corinn, I agree. Happy to see this viewpoint here. Motherhood is a job, and if a mother also works a full-time job outside of the home, it’s easier to understand how she could lose productivity in either, or both.
    As for the Dads, well, duh. If you have kids you may be likely to work harder so you can support them. If you don’t have kids, then, well, there is less incentive if you are fine with the status quo of bachelorhood.

    • Carinn Jade

      Yes. Giving birth or fathering a child is not a job, but taking care of the logistics of children IS a job. Some people hire a nanny to do it. Some people do it themselves. If they do it themselves then it’s a 2nd job — one that necessarily takes time and effort. There are a lot of sweeping generalizations in this study and I’m just not comfortable buying into it. Not to mention that it detracts from the very real issue of gender discrimination/wage gap.

    • Rachel Sea

      It doesn’t detract, it is a part of the gender wage gap. Hell, it EXPLAINS an important contributor to the gap.

  • freemane

    I would be very interested in seeing earnings info on fathers who are also primary (or only) caregivers…

    • Carinn Jade

      Yes!! Or how about those mothers that are primary breadwinners? Do they suffer a penalty too? It doesn’t distinguish between the roles that each party plays in their family, it just talks about mothers vs. non-mothers and fathers vs. non-fathers.

  • Evelyn

    I agree totally. It is possible that there is some kind of discrimination at play in these results but I suspect that they merely reflect other complications. As you say, when you take into account mothers who have been out of the job market so are catching up or mothers who choose fewer hours or (understandably) can’t do overtime there may not be such a big difference. To some employers mums are preferable, you know where you stand as they have had their kids while in a country with generous maternity rights (UK) hiring women of childbearing age without kids can be a worry as you don’t know if and when they will get pregnant. Employers aren’t allowed to ask your plans on kids but I do remember potential employers fishing for clues.

    • NYBondLady

      I read about a study once that showed that the “pay gap” between men and childless women is almost non-existant.

    • Evelyn

      That wouldn’t surprise me, among my own acquaintances that is pretty much the case. My point was more that here in the UK, where we are entitled to a year for maternity leave and many companies offer generous maternity pay in addition to the statutory maternity pay (and the additional pay would be offered by the company but might come out of the departments budget for hiring) I have noticed in interviews that employers are a bit jumpy about young women with no kids, particularly ones with engagement rings, and tend to fish for info on whether you plan kids without actually asking (which would be illegal). Mums are a bit more of a known quantity, you know she may sometimes need to fit things around kids, just as my own husband left work early last week for parent/teacher evening, but employers often assume the mum won’t go on maternity leave for further kids.

    • Beth

      They do control for all of those human capital issues.

  • pixie

    I think *some* employers might have a bias against mothers in the workforce, but I agree with your sentiments that there is far more at play than gender inequality and there are far more variables to take into account. Earnings can depend on size of company, position held, job experience, ability to balance home life responsibilities with work responsibilities (ex. if your partner has a more flexible work schedule or a grandparent helps with childcare), and level of education.
    My own family is not-so-traditional in the sense that my mom is the primary breadwinner. She works for a bank and is salaried, so she doesn’t qualify for overtime. She travels fairly frequently and gets paid a per diem for food (she budgets well and always has some left over, yay non-taxed income!) and she gets a bonus at christmas that depends on how well the bank did that year. She has a college diploma and has worked for the bank for close to 35 years. If she was laid off, I think her only setback would be her age (as it stands right now, she can retire in a little over 2 years, when she’s 60).
    My dad, on the other hand, works in a unionized chemical warehouse and gets paid hourly. He has the option for overtime, but it’s based on seniority, so if someone with more seniority than him wants it, he’s out of luck. He dropped out of high school at 16 and didn’t get his high school diploma until he was in his 20s. He’s been at the warehouse for I think 30 or so years, so his seniority is pretty high, but even with overtime he doesn’t make nearly what my mom does. If he were to be laid off, he’d have a hard time finding a job (age+education+bad arthritis).
    Both my parents work incredibly hard at their jobs. But their jobs are completely different and would be difficult to compare for this sort of study. I doubt my mom was given any sort of penalty when she went on mat leave to have me (though, we’re in Canada, so she had job security) and I don’t think my dad was given any sort of bonus. If I hadn’t been born, my mom would still have to travel for work and my dad probably would have still put in all those hours of overtime so he could have a little extra money (probably to fix up the house, because it really needs fixing up…or a new motorcycle. He got one last year and is completely hooked and wants a bigger one).

  • Beth

    I actually do some research in this area, and have read Budig’s work in depth. It’s very well done. They control for all of those things you mention, that they can measure. They can parcel out the variance for childfree vs. parents, by gender and by marital status–by education, by years out of the workforce, hours worked, etc. Though it seems unlikely, as an HR professor, I can tell you that employers do make assumptions about productivity that are not based on fact–that mothers will be less committed, less productive, etc., even if a father is equally invested in his children. These gendered norms persist. It isn’t fun to consider, but it’s absolutely plausible, and indeed likely.

    • Carinn Jade

      I think you touched on two of my issues – neither of which has to do with the research. One, the pay gap here may be far more difficult to measure. I make less than my male or father counterparts but I do not view money as the whole of my compensation. The flexibility I am granted in my schedule is worth more than the money to me, however I assume I would be considered to suffer the “mommy penalty.” Second, the conclusions don’t erode at what I feel is the more serious problem which is the money/time dance all employers/employees do. The more time you are willing to put in, the more you get paid. Employers are missing out on other essential elements that could be contributed to a company. I suspect that someone who interviewed and said “I am dedicated to Habitat for Humanity and spend a week working with them every other month,” would also encounter an employer that assumes they are less committed to his bottom line. I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing.

    • Rachel Sea

      That’s not how statistics work. All those factors are accounted for and normalized when doing this kind of study. Statistics show overall trends, they don’t apply to individuals. Everyone has exceptions, but when you look at enough people, all those exceptions show as trends too, and then those trends can be normalized within the larger study. For every mother like you who places greater value on flexibility, there is a mother on the mirror of the bell curve balancing you out.

    • Beth

      Much of the traditional wage gap research cannot account for ambition, values, etc. But some of it does, and still finds a wage gap that persists. I am currently conducting research on the supposed “trade off” between flexibility and wages, and finding some results that contradict your personal experience at least on average. Although an N of one will be of course pertinent to you and your life, it isn’t terribly pertinent to economic or psychological research at large.

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    • Smishsmash

      This is what always drives me nuts whenever the wage gap is mentioned. Invariably someone will chime in with some old chestnut about how women get paid less because they take time off for kids. End if story. Nuff said. As if somehow, all the thousands of people with PhDs actively studying the issue could not have possibly thought of that. These studies almost ALWAYS account for these issues and yet that layperson is always there, trying to poke a hole in the study with a stick that’s already part of the study and some personal anecdote.

  • Kay_Sue

    There are always multiple factors at play in any statistical research like this. Part of the reason we analyze such finds is to determine what we can control and we can’t.

    While yes, there’s some lost productivity due to motherhood, and some time off work, that still points to some pretty significant societal attitudes. For instance, why is Mom expected to do this (thus resulting in the “mommy penalty”) while Dad is not (because there is actually a positive wage accruement compared to childless males)? That’s a key societal gender trend we can pick up on from this research. Another societal assumption that can be explored: Does the idea that men work for support, while women work for pleasure or fulfillment come into play?

    The study isn’t mean to explain the gap. Like most studies of its type, it found a statistical anomaly and suggested probable causes. Now it is up to other researchers to further explore the gap and determine what causes actually do contribute.