The Mommy-Track Myth

Workers with kids are just as productive as those without, according to a new study.
JD Hancock/flickr

The gender-wage gap still exists, but it isn’t as bad as we think it is—the apocryphal 77 cents on the dollar figure doesn’t accommodate the person’s profession or hours worked. When accounting for career choice, the gap might be as low as 5 cents, the author Christina Hoff Sommers wrote recently on the Daily Beast. Other sources have noted the same discrepancy. Writing in Slate last year, Hanna Rosin pointed out that women actually make about 91 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men for the same number of hours.

Instead, the more alarming wage gap might be the one between mothers and childless women: One recent paper found that women with kids make roughly 7 to 14 percent less than women without them.

Part of the difference can be attributed to the so-called “mommy track:” Some moms drop out of the workforce for a few years after having children and thus take a hit to their experience and contacts. Likewise, if a recent law school graduate knows she wants to have a big family, she might join a nonprofit instead of a big firm because she knows she’ll want to leave right at 5 p.m. each day.

But a more hidden, less legal explanation could be discrimination by the employer.

“We often see women returning from maternity leave who are given less work or dead end assignments,” Dina Bakst, head of the advocacy group A Better Balance, told NPR. “And this type of discrimination really drags down wages for women because they get off track, and even worse off and pushed out of the workforce.”

The “ideal worker,” some feminist researchers say, is one who has a single-minded devotion to the job—and therefore no kids. In academia, for example, married women have a 12 percent lower probability of obtaining a tenure-track position than married men and a 22 percent lower probability than childless women. A CEO might offer a spunky 20-something without a family a slightly higher salary or more career-boosting assignments than a middle-aged mother of four because he thinks the former will work harder.

But that employer’s assumption could be very wrong, according to one new paper that will be presented at the Society of Labor Economists meeting in May. Using a sample size of more than 10,000 economists, researchers Matthias Krapf at the University of Zurich, Heinrich W. Ursprung at the University of Konstanz, and Christian Zimmermann at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that those with children aren’t any less productive than those without. In fact, economists who are parents are slightly more productive than their childless peers, though the difference isn’t statistically significant.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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