High-Earning Women Lose More From Motherhood


Women pay a price for motherhood, literally. Even beyond the time sacrificed, gray hairs, and many other tradeoffs necessary when having children, working mothers also tend to earn less money than their peers who refrained from having kids. Back in August, David Leonhardt wrote a column about a study showing this. He follows up over the weekend in an Economix blog post explaining another study that provides some detail on how working mothers' income varies: those with high income potential suffer more. Well, of course they do.

I can't help but have one of those "Thank you Captain Obvious!" moments when reading his explanation of a National Bureau of Economic Research paper (.pdf):

A new research paper looks at this issue in more detail and finds that the cost of motherhood varies significantly across skill levels. Women with more skills -- as measured by their performance on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, a test taken by women who have been part of a long-term social-science survey -- pay a higher wage penalty for parenthood than women of lower skill levels.

He goes on to provide some excerpts from the paper by Elizabeth Ty Wilde, Lily Batchelder and David Ellwood. Essentially, women with a greater aptitude for earning more money lose more in potential income when they have children than those women who would have earned less money to begin with. The phenomenon isn't as strong with men.

Perhaps this isn't meant to be surprising, and just a confirmation of what we should already have assumed. As argued in August, because women are generally the primary caregivers, their professional life would suffer more than that of men. While some might find it an unfortunate social norm that men aren't more often primary caregivers, it's simply reality.

Moreover, women with higher potentials for earning obviously have a lot more to lose. Imagine a woman with an MBA who also has children and acts as a primary caregiver. In order to climb the corporate ladder, there are times when she must be able to give 100% to her job. If children are in the picture, then it's simply harder -- even if there's a husband and/or a nanny involved. Think about how much more difficult it would be for her to climb to the CEO job than another woman who has no kids. The headwinds are undoubtedly stronger.

High income job tracks are usually associated with very demanding careers. They generally require working more than 40 hours per week, often include travel, and necessitate thinking about work even when you aren't in the office. All of that is much more difficult if you have kids, particularly if you're the primary caregiver.

It's a major life altering choice to have children, so it's hard to imagine a world where doing so wouldn't conflict somewhat with your professional life, especially if you're the primary caregiver. The tradeoff involved is a necessary one, and shouldn't come as a shock to anyone. If you intend to have children, and play a major role in their lives, your professional life will suffer. And the more demanding your job, the harder it will be to compete with those in your peer class who don't have kids.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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