Paula England, Jonathan Bearak, Michelle J. Budig, and Melissa J. Hodges., “Do Highly Paid, Highly Skilled Women Experience the Largest Motherhood Penalty?,” American Sociological Review, 2016
Photo by XY, Flickr CC

Previous sociological research has revealed that part of women’s lower earnings compared to those of men come from a “motherhood penalty.” Not only are mothers more likely to face discrimination in hiring, employers and colleagues also perceive them as less committed to their work due to the responsibilities of rearing children. Additionally, when mothers take time off to take care of children, they often come back to the same job with lower wages than they had previously. 

Paula England and her colleagues set out to determine if the motherhood penalty differently affects employed women across earning brackets and job skills. They studied women from nationally representative survey data (NLSY79) that follows the same group of similarly aged people over time. They classify mothers as any woman in the dataset who had given birth or adopted a child. To answer how the motherhood penalty varies by cognitive skill within the same wage level, they use respondents’ scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, then divided the respondents into either a low or high score group. Additionally, the researchers use educational attainment as a control variable. Then, they create a second set of statistical models to analyze the differences in motherhood penalty between those in the top fifth percentile of hourly wages versus those in the bottom fifth. 

The results show that highly skilled white women with wages in the 80th and above percentile suffer the biggest motherhood penalty, losing 10% in wages for each of their children. This loss is significantly larger than the penalties for women with similarly high skills but low wages or less skilled women with earnings in either the high or low wage group. This is surprising because women with high skills and high wages tend to have the most continuous job experience compared to other women. But because the correlation between wages and experience is so steep, even dropping out of the workforce to rear children for a short time makes it extremely difficult for highly skilled, highly paid women to make up for lost time. For black women across wage groups and skill levels, interestingly, the motherhood penalties overall are less than they are for white women; however, black women overall have lower wages than white women from the start. Privilege, it seems, has its price in the form of high motherhood penalties.