Here Are the Women With the Greatest ‘Motherhood Penalty’

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Becoming a mom requires sacrifices — including, a new long-term study finds, to earnings.

According to the numbers collected by New York University sociologist Paula England and her colleagues, the people who get hit hardest with the “motherhood penalty” are those that stand to earn the most — at least among white, non-Hispanic women.

The data comes from a longitudinal survey that started in 1979, when the cohort of 3,216 women was between 14 and 21 years old. It checked in on them regularly until 2010, when they were between 45 and 52.

The third of women with the strongest skill sets and the best-paying jobs — teachers, nurses, accountants, therapists, and managers of various stripes — were hit the hardest, averaging a 10 percent loss to long-term earnings for every kid they had or adopted.

White women in lower-skilled tiers had a 4 to 7 percent loss per child, Tom Jacobs reports at Pacific Standard.

The researchers did a parallel analysis of 1,442 black women, finding that they earned less overall but also had lower and less variable penalties for motherhood, a result they “failed to find an explanation” for, they write.

The big losses for the highest-earning white women are, the authors note, a function of privilege. For these women, “their steep experience-wage slopes make even these small amounts of lost experience very expensive; they lose the steep wage growth they would have enjoyed had they worked continuously,” the authors write. They stand to earn so much by staying on the job that stepping away the slightest bit will constrict their overall earning potential.

Because of the zoomed-out, quantitative nature of this sort of research, you can’t really isolate the root causes of these trends (aside from, say, the patriarchy). One thought: Maybe if America had a modern, as opposed to draconian, family-leave policy, then the penalties — and even regrets —wouldn’t be so steep.

Here Are the Women With the Greatest ‘Motherhood Penalty’