The Mommy-Track Myth

By Olga Khazan
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.

For the study, the researchers looked at anonymous survey responses from economists with accounts on the research platform RePEc, or Research Papers in Economics, and examined whether they had children, at what point in their careers they had them, and whether they were married at the time, among other factors. Their measure of productivity was the number of research papers the economists published. Here are the results, broken down by four different publication indices (a higher number on each index mean the economists published more research papers).

For both men and women, “our data suggest that economists with two or more children are more productive than economists with only one child or no children,” they write.

Those are the averages, but it seems that in specific situations, children can get in the way of work. The authors did find that right after they had their first child, individual mothers became about 10 percent less productive than they used to be, while fathers didn’t see a drop in their efficiency. Mothers with two preteens, meanwhile, are about 22 to 33 percent less productive than their childless former selves. (Parents of preteens, insert your own jokes about your progeny here.) Life seemed to get even harder for unmarried women, or those without a husband-like partner—for them, research output dropped by about a third in the three years following childbirth.

Here’s how the authors speculate on the findings: Being the left-brained beings that they are, economists who want to have children likely plan ahead in order to minimize the career damage they are likely to incur when they do start families. Female economists might therefore work extra-hard early in their careers in order to firm up their standings in their workplaces. Then, when they do have kids, they at first are less productive compared with their turbo-charged, childless former selves. But at the same time, they also transfer over their organizational skills and work ethics from their pre-kids days, which makes them not any less productive, on average, than their childless peers.

“People will have less time to spend on their research when they become parents, but they might use their remaining time more efficiently,” Krapf told me in an interview.

Meanwhile, unmarried female economists might get less productive not only because they have less help at home, but also potentially because their kids weren’t planned. Unlike their married counterparts, their kids might have come as a surprise—not necessarily at the best possible time in their careers.

These results are limited by the fact that they only examine a white-collar, analytical, and easily quantified profession like economics. Moms who work in other fields might see dramatically different results. Still, it gives employers something to chew on before judging workers who choose to have children.  

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