In today's installment of Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't, a New York Times analysis of two new research papers reveals that motherhood is the biggest reason for the gender pay gap between men and women — even before any kids are actually present.
"Between ages 25 and 45, the gender pay gap for college graduates, which starts close to zero, widens by 55 percentage points. For those without college degrees, it widens by 28 percentage points," writes Times reporter Claire Cain Miller. "The American Economic Review paper, which examined people born around 1970, found that almost all of the pay gap for college graduates came from ages 26 to 33" — in other words, during women's typical childbearing years. Reasons for this can be attributed to trends at home and in the workplace.
Married women without children are more likely than their husbands to make career decisions that end up negatively impacting their earning potential, whether that involves passing on job opportunities, moving for a spouse's job, or not moving because of a spouse's job.
"One person focuses on career, and the other one does the lion's share of the work at home," Sari Kerr, an economist at Wellesley College and an author of both papers, told the Times. But since housework and childcare still default to women, for the most part, women are the partners who are usually tasked with scaling their careers back, with little chance of ever recouping those gains.
"By age 45, women catch up [but] even women who catch up, however, pay a long-term price," Cain Miller explains. "They've lost a significant amount of pay — in wages, retirement, and retirement savings — along the way."
Outside of the home, during those prime earning years, employers respond to the possibility of women having children by paying them less money (since they assume mothers will become less committed to their jobs), as well as failing to fairly compensate working mothers for the hours they complete.
"When their pay is calculated on an hourly basis, [mothers] are still paid less than men for the hours they work," Cain Miller writes. "Employers, especially for jobs that require a college degree, pay people disproportionately more for working long hours and disproportionately less for working flexibly."
So if you think that education will help you avoid these trends, you're in for disappointment. The studies showed that the wage gap is worse for college graduates because "their earnings are higher, and men dominate the highest-paying jobs. These jobs also place more value on long, inflexible hours." In other words, the only reason the gap is smaller among people with lower thresholds of education is because those men are earning less money, not because women in that demographic are beating the trends.
Of course, negotiating is still important when it comes to doing your part to ensure that you're paid fairly. But if the salary statistics are still essentially telling women that getting married and/or having kids will set them back, then something's got to give.