Misra and Colleagues Find Workplace “Motherhood Penalty” Persists in New Study

Joya Misra

For decades, research has shown, mothers in the workforce have earned less than women without children. But as women have achieved higher levels of education and more extensive workplace experience, has that gap closed?

That’s the question Joya Misra, professor in the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy and Department of Sociology, and two colleagues consider in a new working paper, Motherhood penalties in the U.S., 1986-2014. They found, surprisingly, that not only has this wage gap persisted—in some cases, it’s actually grown. While women have been investing more in education and experience, Misra notes, “they’re not seeing a return on that.”

Misra’s research contributes to the School of Public Policy’s longstanding emphasis on constructive social change. She coauthored the paper with Eunjung Jee, a doctoral candidate in the UMass Department of Economics, and Marta Murray-Close, a researcher with the US Census Bureau.

The researchers looked at the wages of working mothers in the United States during three time periods between 1986 and 2014. During that time frame, wages for working mothers in other places have improved; in Norway, for instance, the “motherhood penalty” has disappeared, thanks to strong work/family government policies.

Even in the absence of such policies in the US, Misra says, she and her colleagues expected to see the gap here at least shrink, as women’s education levels and job experience have grown. According to the US Department of Labor, 70 percent of women with children under 18 are in the workforce, up from 47 percent in 1975. Women have also achieved higher levels of education in recent decades, now making up the majority of college students, according to the Department of Education.

Instead, their research found that, even controlling for education and work experience, the motherhood wage gap remained unchanged over almost thirty years, with mothers of three or more children making 18 percent less than childless women and mothers of two making 13 percent less. For women with one child, that gap actually increased, from 8 to 14 percent.

While more study is needed to determine why the motherhood penalty increased for women with one child, Misra suspects that employers hold similar perceptions of all mothers, regardless of the size of their families. “I think that in some sense employers are reading any mother as less committed in some ways,” she says. In addition, in today’s economy, “families are even more dependent on a mother’s income. Maybe employers see mothers as sort of a cheap date. … Employers know that parents need jobs and may be willing to take jobs at lower wages.”

Misra and her colleagues suggest that the solution to erasing this stubborn wage gap lies in government policies that support working parents, such as paid parental leave and publicly funded preschools. “Our findings may thus confirm that changes mothers can make—in their human capital investment, as well as in their employment patterns—may not be enough to create real change,” they wrote. “Policies aimed at supporting mothers’ employment may be a necessary next step.”

The research was supported by a grant from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, with seed funding from the UMass College of Social & Behavioral Sciences. The paper can be read and downloaded at Equitable Growth’s website. 

About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy is a hub for research and teaching, preparing students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.

—Maureen Turner, communications manager, School of Public Policy