A Field Where Working Moms Aren’t Punished

Women in the arts don’t see their wages fall after having children. What’s keeping the “motherhood penalty,” which is so common in other professions, at bay?

Kin Cheung / AP

There’s a question that still, however unfairly, haunts many working women: whether marriage and children are bad career moves. While the size of the gender pay gap is often disputed, there is one gulf that appears to be pretty indisputable: Gender pay disparities are the most dire for married women.

The gender pay gap also has to do with the well-documented disparity experienced by women with children—often dubbed the “motherhood penalty.” Researchers have estimated a wage penalty of a 4 percent earnings hit per child, while fathers see a 6 percent increase per child (the so-called “fatherhood bonus”). Worst of all, the penalty has not diminished over time. And the term “motherhood penalty” has come to represent more than just the lagging earnings of working mothers: Studies have shown that women with children are often stereotyped and surveys suggest that mothers are less likely to be hired and, if hired, more like to be held to higher standards. (Given all of this, it’s no wonder that political movements to close the gender pay gap have such a heavy focus on working mothers in particular and policies that would benefit them specifically, such as paid leave, flexible hours, and leave for fathers.)

Interestingly, a group of researchers recently identified a field where the motherhood penalty was virtually nonexistent. The researchers, Danielle Lindemann, Carly Rush, and Steven Tepper, looked at earnings inequalities in the arts—“the arts” referring to jobs in the performing arts, design, art history, writing, film, the visual arts, and music. Using a survey of nearly 34,000 Americans with art degrees to study the earnings trajectories of those with artistic careers, the researchers found that the pay gap for the field is in some ways similar to the national average, but, more interestingly, they did not find a wage penalty associated with motherhood.

“Our guess or our theory is that it has something to do with the nature of arts careers, that they're more flexible in terms of employment, that they're more project-based,” says Lindemann, an assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University. “Some arts careers are done in an office 9-to-5, but more often you can work from home and it's not the typical [situation where] you have to be in the office for this certain amount of time. It's more of a project-based labor market.”

Lindemann hypothesizes that another part of the equation might be that artists are more likely to challenge gendered traditions. As a result, chores and childcare—unpaid work that traditionally falls on females—might be more evenly divided in artists’ households. “It’s possible that artists may be more liberal than the general population, or … that artists maybe have more egalitarian ideas about child-rearing, so they're sharing more equally in that sphere,” says Lindemann.

But Lindemann says that artistic careers aren’t exactly a utopia for women: The pay gap exists, and fathers still receive a bonus, meaning their wages go up relative to men without kids. So even though women working in the arts aren't experiencing the motherhood penalty (wages going down relative to women without kids), they are still penalized because they're not getting the premium that many fathers are seeing.

Other research has specifically studied which mothers pay a motherhood penalty and why. The research of Melissa Binder, an associate professor of economics at the University of New Mexico, along with her co-authors Deborah Anderson and Kate Krause, has found that highly educated women pay a high price to become mothers, as briefly “stopping out” of the labor force leads employers to believe that their skills and knowledge are outdated. But for women with high-school degrees, Binder and her co-authors found that middle-skill mothers suffered more prolonged and severe wage losses, likely because they are employed in jobs that don’t allow for flexibility.

Binder sees some overlaps between her findings and those of Lindemann and her colleagues. “Highly educated women can work after-hours to make up for taking a kid to the doctor. Women who work in low-skill jobs can find shift work that allows them to pick their kids up after school,” she explains. “A mom-artist presumably does not need to ‘stop out,’ and her work can be done at any hour. So it makes sense, from our findings, that she won't be penalized, relative to a woman who has no kids.”

Lindemann’s study lends credence to the idea that a flexible work schedule can alleviate the wage penalties working mothers often see in the workplace. Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard who has done some of the most influential research on the gender gap, has found smaller pay gaps in the technology, science, and health sectors—fields that tend to offer more flexibility. Conversely, she found bigger gaps in fields with more rigid schedules, such as those in corporate, financial, and legal professions.

As flexible schedules become more common for some white-collar workers, it’s worth studying careers without motherhood penalties to see what else it could be about these jobs that make them more equal. The results could have interesting implications on the continuing restructuring of work, and the efforts to change traditions in the interest of wage equality.