The Motherhood Pay Gap Is Real -- And It's Not Getting Any Better

by Jody Allard
pregnant woman working in an office
Image via Morsa Images/Getty Images

The pay gap is getting worse for some moms

Every parent knows that kids are little bundles of bills, but they impact their moms’ finances in others ways too. You’ve probably heard of the gender pay gap, but did you know the outlook is even worse for moms?

A new working paper found that moms still make less than childless women — and the gap isn’t improving. In fact, for many moms, the pay gap is actually getting worse.

The paper, published by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, found that even when correcting for things like education, occupation and work experience, the pay gap for mothers with one kid increased from 9 percent between 1986–1995 to 15 percent between 2006–2014. Yikes.

For moms with two kids, the pay gap remain unchanged at 13 percent. The gap also remained steady for moms with three or more kids, who make a shocking 20 percent less than their childless female colleagues. Those diapers aren’t going to buy themselves, but the moms who have the highest expenses are most at risk of making less than they deserve.

The paper’s findings are based on the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has tracked about 18,000 individuals from 5,000 families since its inception in 1968. So this is no fringe study with a handful of participants — it’s highlighting a systemic problem for moms.

And the so-called “motherhood penalty” really does only target moms. Other studies have consistently found that not only do men not suffer the same penalty post-kids, they actually make more money after becoming a father. Through time, this disparity has impacted more of the workforce, with working mothers with young kids rising from 47 percent in 1975 to 70 percent in 2015.

So why aren’t things improving for moms?

Researchers point to a lack of family-friendly policies like paid parental leave and subsidized childcare. Other civilized countries that actually care about equity in the workplace have successfully narrowed gender pay gaps after passing these types of laws.

“It’s really, really, really clear,” study author Joya Misra, who has studied the policies different countries use to support mothers, told CNN. “Universal subsidized childcare has the most important effect on reducing the motherhood penalty.”

This should shock precisely no moms, who know the struggle of finding affordable childcare. According to a new report, the national average cost for childcare is $8,700. Single parents pay nearly 36 percent of their income for childcare for one child, while married couples pay 10 percent.

Another challenge is employers who penalize moms for taking maternity leave even years later. Society for Human Resources Management CEO Johnnie Taylor told CNN that requiring employers to provide paid parental leave helps but it won’t stop employers from discriminating against women for taking that time off.

“You’re a female associate [at a law firm],” Taylor said. “Should you be considered for partnership at the end of your seven years, when you took nine months off? We’re trying to solve for that.”

It’s illegal to punish parents for family responsibilities and lawsuits alleging discrimination have increased dramatically in recent years, according to a 2016 report. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doesn’t have the resources to actively monitor the issue.

“If they had many more investigators, workplaces would tighten up more than they have,” Misra said. “What they primarily have learned is what to say and not say in order to be within the law, rather than how to actually not discriminate.”

So for moms in the workplace, one thing is clear: You’re probably not being paid what you deserve.