Expert Commentary

The motherhood penalty: Research on how women’s job prospects and earnings suffer after they have children

More than two years into the pandemic, research is emerging on how the early days of COVID-19 affected working moms and the employment of women generally.

motherhood penalty
(ergonofis / Unsplash)

One storyline that captured worldwide media attention early in the COVID-19 pandemic centered on the motherhood penalty — the well-established finding that women’s job prospects and earnings suffer after they have children.

Here’s what Nahla Valji, senior gender adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations told the New York Times’ Francesca Donner in May 2020: “Our formal economy is only possible because it’s subsidized by women’s unpaid work. And so we have almost this black box over the home and everything that happens there has a zero dollar value on it. We don’t have adequate child care anywhere in the world.”

The United Nation’s International Labour Organization in a March 2022 report estimated that across 189 countries and territories, including the U.S., labor force participation among mothers with small children fell 1.8% from 2019 to 2020, compared with a 1% decrease for fathers with small kids. According to the report:

“Even before the pandemic, labour force participation for mothers (55% for women aged 25-54 with partners and at least one child under the age of 6 at home) was lagging behind women’s overall participation rate (62.1%) and was substantially lower than that of fathers (97.1%). Working fathers, in fact, enjoy a labour market premium – they are more likely to participate in the workforce than all men in the same age group (whose participation rate is 93.5%).”

Research on the motherhood penalty in the U.S. has been going on for decades. In one paper on the topic from 1998, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Columbia University professor Jane Waldfogel, who studies the impact of public policies on families and children, writes: “Despite the narrowing of the gender gap in recent years, the family gap in pay between women with children and women without children is, if anything, growing larger. Although women without children have made gains in the labor market, women with children have not kept pace.”

If you’re a journalist covering gender and the workplace, the Center for Women & Work at Rutgers University is a good place to turn for research and experts to interview, as is the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.

The Great Recession from Dec. 2007 to June 2009 followed the historical trend of most recessions with more men than women losing their jobs. That recession was also marked by a slow recovery — it took the better half of the 2010s for the unemployment rate to fall to mid-2000s levels.

But the COVID recession was more like an earthquake, a sudden jolt in Feb. 2020 with aftershocks, such as widespread closures of daycare centers and public schools, which reverberated for months after the recession officially ended in April 2020. Unlike past recessions, more women than men lost jobs during the COVID recession.

“Women have borne the brunt of job loss from the very first days of the pandemic,” writes University of Michigan public policy professor Betsey Stevenson in a September 2021 Brookings Institution report. “That is because women, particularly minority women, are more likely to be in positions that require in-person work.”

Now, more than two years into the pandemic, research is emerging on how the early days of COVID-19 affected working moms and the employment of women generally in the U.S. Six of those studies are featured here. This research roundup focuses on U.S.-based studies, many which use data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of about 59,000 households (typically with a 75% response rate) that asks a range of questions on household demographics and labor force participation.

One of the studies, published earlier this year, finds that in “the spring of 2020 where the effects of the pandemic could be clearly measured, the employment-to-population ratio fell to 71.6% for men and 66.4% for women.” Here are a few more quick takeaways from the papers featured below:

  • About two-thirds of job loss among women happened because those women left the labor force to care for their kids or take on other family responsibilities.
  • Black women disproportionately work in jobs where they are classified as essential workers, and over half of the job loss Black women experienced came from these five industries: healthcare and social services, educational services, retail trade, accommodation and food services and public sector administration.
  • Mothers with school-aged kids experienced more job loss than fathers with school-aged kids. But married women without children fared similarly to married fathers.

Keep reading for more of the latest research on how the pandemic has disproportionately affected job prospects for mothers and women generally. 

Who is the “She” in the Pandemic “She-Cession”? Variation in COVID-19 Labor Market Outcomes by Gender and Family Status
Andrew Taeho Kim, Matt Erickson, Yurong Zhang and Chang Hwan Kim. January 2022, Population Research and Policy Review.

The authors explore whether couples who worked from home while taking care of their children had an easier time keeping their jobs than did single parents during the COVID-related workplace and school shutdowns of 2020. Couples, they find, were more likely to maintain employment than unmarried mothers because couples shared childcare duties.

The authors analyze data for workers aged 25 to 54 from 2017 to 2020, based on their responses to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, and focus on whether respondents reported being at work in the week before taking the survey.

They note there are normal seasonal fluctuations in employment among men and women. From 2017 to 2019, employment for men and women fell during summer months, but more so for women. In turn, the authors adjust for seasonal variation in looking at the 2020 data. They find job loss among women overall during the summer of 2020 was due to normal seasonal employment fluctuations and because more women than men work in industries hit hardest at the onset, such as hospitality and education.

They then explore the at-work gender gap by marital status and parenthood.

“There are several noteworthy findings,” the authors write. “First, the impression that the COVID-19-related recession is a ‘she-cession’ is misleading. There is substantial variation among female groups.”

Married women with school-aged kids did experience more job loss than married fathers, after adjusting for seasonal variations. But women who had never married and did not have kids, along with mothers who never married, experienced the most job loss, the authors find.

“The women whose employment was most distinctively adversely affected by COVID-19 during 2020 were less-educated never-married childless women and never-married mothers,” the authors write.

Men with or without kids who had never been married also bore more of the job loss brunt than married fathers, but their employment rebounded quickly. Employment rates were worse and longer lasting among both men and women without at least a bachelor’s degree.

“Contrary to the perception of a she-cession, married women without school-aged children were not worse off compared to married fathers,” the authors write.

They add: “The amplified burden of childcare at the onset of the lockdown and school closings may have taken a heavy toll on the employment of never-married mothers. Their lack of flexibility in adapting to the increased load of childcare may have driven less-educated never-married mothers away from their employment.”

The Evolving Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Gender Inequality in the US Labor Market: The COVID Motherhood Penalty
Kenneth Couch, Robert Fairlie and Huanan Xu. January 2022, Economic Inquiry.

Using Current Population Survey data from March 2020 to December 2020, the authors explore how the COVID recession affected working women across the spring, summer and fall of that year.

Women with school-aged children experienced job losses across the three seasons. The authors find women with school-aged kids lost their jobs at a disproportionately high rate compared with women without children, “and that a large portion of these changes can be attributed to reductions in work activity due to the presence of their children.”

Likewise, during the summer of 2020, women with school-aged kids saw their hours worked fall 18.3% compared with men with school-aged children. “There appears to have been a sizable motherhood penalty due to COVID,” the authors write.

The gap between men and women would have been even wider but for women who were in jobs conducive to teleworking. Still, “three quarters beyond the initiation of the economic downturn and school shutdowns from COVID-19, we observe a general pattern of widening gender gaps due to COVID-19 through the summer with narrowing gaps in the fall,” the authors write.

Effects of the COVID-19 Recession on the US Labor Market: Occupation, Family and Gender
Stefania Albanesi and Jiyeon Kim. Summer 2021, Journal of Economic Perspectives.

The authors parse how supply and demand responses to the pandemic affected employment outcomes for men and women.

To paraphrase how they explain supply and demand in the labor market: A worker who quits her job, for any reason other than she knows her job is being eliminated, is exhibiting a supply side effect. The worker is withdrawing her supply of labor. A worker who is laid off because her employer is contracting indicates a demand-side effect. There is not enough demand for her job for her employer to justify keeping her on payroll.

In analyzing Current Population Survey data from 2020, the authors find that “both supply-side and demand-side effects play a role in explaining the drop in employment-to-population ratio for women during the pandemic recession, supply-side factors related to marriage and children are associated with roughly about two-thirds of the shift, while occupational changes are associated with the other one-third.”

In other words, two-thirds of the employment decline for women happened because they withdrew their labor in order to care for children or because of other family-related responsibilities. One-third of the decline was because their industry shut down and cut staff, which is what happened in many public-facing workplaces, like restaurants.

Understanding the underlying reasons women lost jobs at a higher rate than men during the 2020 recession can inform policymakers’ decisions during the next recession, if it is similar to the pandemic recession. The authors note that “women’s employment losses from the pandemic may have longer-term effects. In the past, mothers who leave the labor force temporarily to take care of children have experienced substantial losses to wages and lifetime earnings.”

The Motherhood Penalty in Context: Assessing Discrimination in a Polarized Labor Market
Patrick Ishizuka. July 2021, Demography.

The author writes that past research on employer discrimination against mothers has focused almost entirely on “college-educated mothers in professional and managerial occupations.” Largely left out of that research: less-educated mothers seeking lower-paying positions, according to the author.

To explore employer perceptions of generally less-educated, lower-income mothers, the author submitted 2,210 fictitious applications from April 2016 to July 2017 for 1,105 job openings in both low-wage service sectors and higher-paying professional or managerial jobs across six cities: Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. The author used “surnames typical of non-Hispanic White women based on 2000 census data,” and, as such, “the results may not generalize to other racial and ethnic groups.”

All the resumes submitted reported continuous, full-time work experience for seven years. Each employer received one application indicating a childless applicant, and another indicating the applicant was a mother. The author indicated motherhood by adding experience volunteering with a local parent-teacher association. The fictional applicants for the low-wage positions held a high school degree, while the high-wage applicants had a bachelor’s degree from a large, public university.

The universities the author used were similarly ranked and outside the top 100 of the 2016 U.S. News and World Report National College and University Rankings. For low-wage applicants with only a high school degree the author picked high schools within each metropolitan area rated at least 5 out of 10 on GreatSchools.

The key variable was whether the fictional applicants within the next three months received a callback, which the author defines as “a request from an employer to interview or discuss either the position or the applicant’s background further.”

Overall, 25% of applicants without kids and 20% of mothers received callbacks. Digging deeper into specific job categories, the author finds that for cashier jobs, 23.4% of childless women and 18.4% of mothers received callbacks; for retail sales jobs, 29.3% of women without children and 24% of mothers got callbacks; and for marketing managers — a higher-paid job requiring a bachelor’s degree — 23.5% of childless applicants and 17.4% of mothers received callbacks.

While the paper takes a broad look at employment discrimination against mothers, the author notes that the pandemic “may also have important implications for motherhood discrimination. As schools and daycare centers have closed, mothers have assumed even greater caregiving responsibilities and have been disproportionately likely to reduce their labor supply.”

The Early Impact of COVID-19 on Job Losses among Black Women in the United States
Michelle Holder, Janelle Jones and Thomas Masterson. March 2021, Feminist Economics.

This analysis, based on Current Population Survey results from February to April 2020, explores the industries and occupations in which Black women experienced the biggest job losses during the early months of the pandemic.

In February 2020, two-thirds of Black women worked in one of five industries. The largest share of Black women worked in healthcare and social services, representing 28.1% of all working Black women and nearly three times the employment share of the next highest category: educational services. The other three industries where Black women were employed at high rates at the onset of the pandemic were retail trade, accommodation and food services, and public sector administration.

Overall, more than half of the jobs Black women lost came from those five industries. From February to April, Black women working in hotels and restaurants experienced the biggest job losses. During the same period, Black women working as cashiers across industries experienced the biggest employment losses — about 178,000 jobs lost.

The authors note that Black women disproportionately work in jobs where they were classified as essential workers, such as nursing. In some industries, this clustering of employment for Black women shielded them from job loss but also exposed them to greater COVID-19 risks. The authors propose several policy implications:

“Future legislation must include mechanisms, or automatic stabilizers, to ensure aid will not stop prematurely. Tying direct cash assistance to cyclical movements in the economy, like the unemployment rate, is a popular policy tool we have yet to use. To ensure Black women are not left out of the recovery, automatic stabilizers could be tied specifically to this group’s unemployment rate, instead of the average rate.”

COVID-19 and the Gender Gap in Work Hours
Caitlyn Collins, Liana Christin Landivar, Leah Ruppanner and William Scarborough. July 2020, Feminist Frontiers.

The authors look beyond how the pandemic affected employment and focus on how childcare responsibilities affected weekly work hours for men and women, based on Current Population Survey data from February to April 2020.

For couples in jobs that likely allowed them to telework, they find that “mothers with young children have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers,” with the gender gap in work hours growing by as much as half.

“This indicates that even when both parents are able to work from home and may be more directly exposed to childcare and housework demands, mothers are scaling back to meet these responsibilities to a greater extent than fathers,” the authors write.

The paper examines data covering the beginning of the pandemic, but the authors suggest policy and familial implications that resonate today. Namely, that employers should continue to offer telework flexibility in order to keep mothers in the workforce, and that fathers should “be encouraged to provide more hours of care for their children, which may mean sacrificing paid work hours to do so.”

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