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Janet Chen-Lan Kuo

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.

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