Research Findings

How do occupational characteristics hinder or empower mothers?

January 10, 2018

Mothers have been shown to receive lower pay than childless women across industrial countries. In the United States, research based on women born in the 1960s or earlier indicates that mothers earn 4-5% less per child, compared to childless women with similar education, length of work experience, and frequency of employment interruptions.

The pay gap between mothers and non-mothers who are otherwise similar—the so-called “motherhood wage penalty”—has been shown to differ in size for women with different marital status, skill level, and age. We know relatively little, however, about how the characteristics of occupations shape the degree to which women are penalized for having children. Occupations, by design, differ in their required training, schedules, and activities. The different work conditions and requirements across occupations may empower or hinder mothers, thereby narrowing or widening the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers.

How exactly should occupational characteristics affect the extent of the motherhood wage penalty? The answer to this question depends on why mothers receive lower wages than childless women in the first place. Because mothers face greater family obligations and time constraints, they may not be able to meet job demands the way childless women can—e.g., being very flexible in making work-related plans—resulting in mothers’ worse job performance and lower pay. If work-family conflict largely accounts for the motherhood wage penalty, then this penalty should be greater in occupations that enable workers less autonomy and more teamwork, as the job performance for such occupations depends more on workers’ ability to perform a certain task at a certain time. Because more autonomous occupations enable greater decision-making latitude, which is thought to lessen job strain, they may also decrease the work-family conflict mothers frequently face, thereby reducing mothers’ wage disadvantage. Likewise, because occupations that require workers to compete intensely with peers tend to be more stressful and time-demanding, mothers in more competitive occupations should be especially likely to suffer from job strain and work-family conflict, resulting in a greater motherhood penalty.

Alternatively, mothers may receive lower wages because they are willing to sacrifice pay for certain amenities their jobs provide, if the amenities enable them to better balance work and family. If this is the case, because mothers likely prefer occupations that enable greater autonomy, require less teamwork, and impose less competitive pressure, they should be willing to sacrifice wages more in such occupations. Consequently, these occupational characteristics should be associated with greater motherhood wage penalties.

Yet, if mothers receive lower wages because employers tend to see them as less devoted workers and discriminate against them, we can expect still a different association between occupational characteristics and the extent of the motherhood wage penalty. Specifically, because employers suspicious of mothers’ devotion and performance should be even more distrustful of mothers when their occupation offers them latitude to determine tasks and make decisions, mothers can be expected to be penalized more in more autonomous occupations. Similarly, the suspicion of mothers’ ability to put in extra effort to compete may lead employers to pay mothers especially less than childless women in more competitive occupations. From the viewpoint that employers discriminate against mothers because of the stereotype of mothers’ higher job turnover rates, we should also expect that the motherhood wage penalty to be greater in occupations require more training, as employers are especially likely to be concerned about job turnover for such occupations.

In our recently published paper, we combined 16 waves of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) with the detailed occupational characteristics reported by the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) and show that the wage gap between mothers and childless women are greater in occupations that are less autonomous, require more teamwork, and impose more competitive pressure. These differences in mothers’ pay disadvantage exist even after taking account individual differences in human capital (e.g., education, work experience, employment interruptions), geographic location, marital status, and a range of job attributes, including their occupation’s general educational requirement and gender composition. Overall, our results are the most consistent with the account highlighting how work-family conflict and job strain contribute to mothers’ wage disadvantage.

To further illustrate our findings, women in autonomous occupations (e.g., animal trainers and computer and office machine repairers), face very small wage decreases with the arrival of each child. Mothers in occupations that allow little autonomy (e.g., library technicians and cashiers), experience wage reductions that are much greater than average. Similarly, women in highly competitive occupations (e.g.,  lawyers and securities sales agents), suffer from a net wage penalty per child that is more than 40% greater than the average, while their counterparts in occupations with low levels of competition (e.g., accounting clerks and general maintenance and repair workers) barely suffer at all.

Women in occupations that require little teamwork (e.g., dispensing opticians and recreation and fitness worker), encounter no significant wage penalty. Conversely, women who are required to work with a team, such as registered nurses, first-line supervisors of retail sales workers, are subject to drastic wage decreases with each additional child.

Our analysis also indicates that the motherhood wage penalty persists—and virtually unchanged in its magnitude—for young women in today’s labor markets. Most previous work on mothers’ wage disadvantage relies on women born in the 1960s or earlier. Our study shows that the gross wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is greater for women born in the early 1980s, who mostly entered motherhood in the 2000s or later, compared to women born twenty years earlier. After taking into account human capital, marital status, and geographic location, however, today’s mothers with young children face a nearly identical net wage penalty as did their mothers’ generation—around 4% per child.

The strong persistence of the motherhood wage penalty, along with our findings about how occupations imposing greater job strain penalize mothers more, suggests that mothers continue to face a high level of work-family conflict, despite many societal changes that have improved women’s educational and occupational opportunities over past decades. Although our research echoes a growing literature that highlights the importance of changing working conditions to alleviate work-family conflict, our findings at the same time indicate that some of the obstacles mothers face are embedded in the design of occupations (e.g., teamwork requirements). Unfortunately, such obstacles cannot be easily addressed with workplace policies. Reductions in mothers’ work-family conflict and wage disadvantage would also require fundamental changes in the division of labor within the home.

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