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Closing the Gap
Sociologists assess the motherhood wage penalty on a global scale
Close up image of sociologists Michelle Budig and Joya Misra

A novel database of Work-Family Policy Indicators developed by Michelle Budig and Joya Misra is crucial to the effort to promote policies that will mitigate the price mothers pay to have children. 

A growing number of career-minded women are opting out of motherhood—a trend that is raising important questions about work and family across the globe. With assistance from graduate student Irene Boeckmann, UMass Amherst sociologists Michelle Budig and Joya Misra have compiled their ongoing cross-national research on how policies affect mothers’ employment and wages into the Work-Family Policy Indicators—a specialized database hosted by the Luxembourg Income Study.

Their award-winning research addresses the parenthood wage-gap that persists in the United States by comparing national data to those of other high- to middle-income countries around the world. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded both the compilation and analysis of the database. Existing data shows childless women in the United States make about 94 cents to the dollar made by their male counterparts, which Budig and Misra say shows progress toward parity. That gap, however, is exacerbated by parenthood—the average mother makes only 60 cents to the average father’s dollar, or about $1,100 a year less per child. Mothers earn less than childless women; fathers earn more than childless men. The difference is referred to as the “motherhood wage penalty” and the “fatherhood wage bonus.” Budig and Misra’s novel database of Work-Family Policy Indicators is crucial to the effort to promote policies that will mitigate the price mothers pay to have children. By looking at the U.S. system on a global scale, they are shedding light on how effective work-family policies can reduce the gap.

“It’s politically fashionable to say you want to believe that everybody has equal opportunities—but we don’t. Understanding where those disparities arise gives us a clue on how to fix them,” says Budig.

The Luxembourg Income Study has long served as a reliable source of cross-national socioeconomic data that attracts economists, sociologists, demographers, political scientists, and scholars worldwide. Now it has expanded to include the research team’s Work-Family Policy Indicators database, which launched in summer 2012—one of ten complementary databases hosted on the site. The data arrived in high demand because it allows researchers to look at inequality from both a macro and micro standpoint, as it applies localized data to a broad geographic scope.

The team identified 12 country-level “indicators” across 22 countries in Europe, North America and Australia that are associated with the motherhood wage penalty felt cross-nationally.  Seven of the indicators deal specifically with birth related maternity, paternity and extended parental leave policies, such as length of leave (paid or unpaid) and available benefits as mandated by national policy. Three of the indicators relate to early childhood education and care, while two of the indicators pertain to regulation of working hours.

Their research shows that when controlling for other factors, mothers in countries with more generous state-subsidized childcare programs for infants, toddlers and pre-school age children are more likely to be employed and earn wages comparable to childless women. Leave policies also make a difference—greater equality exists in countries where men also receive leaves and where parental leaves are well paid but moderate length (longer than 12 weeks and shorter than three years).

Budig says that even when using elaborate models to analyze the data, the research team cannot account for the entirety of the wage discrepancy between childless women and mothers. She explains that the team is able to hold certain factors constant, yet variables such as personal biases cannot be quantified. Budig and the team say the gap that remains unaccounted for may be attributable to systematic workplace discrimination. Such discrimination has been revealed in the United States through experimental data, most notably in a 2007 Cornell University study led by Shelly Correll that showed employers were less likely to hire a mother (however equally qualified) than a childless female candidate. The same study also showed that employers deemed the equally qualified mothers as “less committed” than their childless counterparts and offered them an average of $11,000 a year less pay.

“We (society) push this model where women, to be economically successful, have to be more like men have been, which is less engaged in the home,” says Budig.

Budig and Misra, whose collaborative work has been published in six articles for various professional journals and featured in congressional hearings, advise that in order to reduce the motherhood wage penalty in the United States, legislators should pass policies that target workplace discrimination based on parental status and help integrate professional and family life. They point out that because there are no federal-level work-family policies that can be applied universally to all workers, many employees with access to parental benefits fear professional backlash. According to their research, countries with publicly subsidized childcare exponentially reduce the wage gap, as do countries that offer non-transferable paid leave to fathers.

Misra, along with her research assistant Eiko Strader and University of North Carolina sociologist Stephanie Moller, has received additional NSF funding to investigate work-family policy in relation to single mothers and poverty. In this project, she is extending the database to incorporate policy data from 1980 through 2010 so analyses can be made over a longer time span. Budig is examining the relationships between work-family policies and gender differences in self-employment and earnings as an ISSR scholar with the University’s newly inaugurated Institute for Social Sciences Research. Budig also is wrapping up another project funded by the Russell Sage Foundation focused on wage inequalities in relation to paid care work and is hoping to start new research surrounding female entrepreneurship.

Amanda Drane '12