The Hidden Cost of Motherhood

Here’s some good news for female employees: The gender pay gap, the long-touted 77 cents that women earn for each dollar a man earns, has all but disappeared. Women can now make almost as much money as their male counterparts — unless they have children.

According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women as a whole are now earning 82 cents for every dollar man makes. For women who’ve never married, the gap is even smaller: These women earn just 5 percent less than men do.

But this gap widens significantly when women begin having children.

Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts whose research focuses on earnings gaps associated with parenthood, finds that women earn an average of 7 percent less per child that they have. A woman with two children, therefore, is making 14 percent less than a childless woman would.

Budig said some of this gap can be explained by the potential work time that gets substituted for child care purposes.

“When women have children, they tend to reduce their work hours or take time out from work to take care of their babies and then return later,” Budig said.

This time off can result in missed opportunities such as promotions or the chance to participate in important projects. However, not all of the earnings gap for mothers can be so easily explained away.

“We looked at whether moms are kind of trading salary or pay for more family friendly jobs, like jobs with shorter commutes or jobs that have more stable schedules or jobs that have a lot of women in them or are supposedly more family friendly, and we couldn’t find anything that would explain that penalty based on job characteristics,” Budig said.

It’s therefore likely, Budig said, that some amount of employer discrimination against women with kids plays a role in the lower pay.

So how can employers help narrow the gap? The easiest way to tackle the problem is for organizations to implement policies that better accommodate the needs of employees with children.

Budig suggested companies offer paid paternity and maternity leave, so that women have more reason to stick with their jobs rather than leave employment.

“Currently we have family and medical leave, but it’s unpaid and it only covers about half the workers in the U.S.,” Budig said. “A lot of people don’t have access to it and a lot of people who do can’t afford to take it because they can’t lose the wages while taking unpaid leave.”

Further, Budig suggested that the United States should enact policy to fund public preschool, which would serve as a daytime child care option for children younger than school age.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which has been recognized as one of Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies for nine consecutive years, has a number of policies in place to support employees with children.

“We have a variety of benefits and services available to our employees to help them integrate their personal and professional lives more effectively,” said David Laboy, director of BCBSNC’s office of diversity. “We realize we don’t check out certain aspects of ourselves when we cross the door in the morning and it’s important that we recognize that.”

In addition to eight weeks of paid maternity leave, BSBSNC offers flexible work options and emergency childcare to help workers balance their responsibilities as parents and employees. Employees can choose to work remotely or work part time, while a job share program allows two part-time workers to split the responsibilities of a single position. Another available option is a compressed work week, in which employees are given the freedom to complete their weekly 40 hours of work in whatever manner works best for them.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be five times a week, 8 hours a day,” Laboy said. “You choose to work four 10-hour days or any combination that adds up to the 40 hours.”

BCBSNC’s onsite child care center, meanwhile, offers a backup option for whenever an employee’s primary form of care is unavailable. Each worker is given 25 days of subsidized access to the center each year. New mothers receive an additional 20 days at the center when they return from maternity leave to ease back into work while still having their newborn in close proximity.

For more permanent child care resources, BCBSNC offers a program that helps employees find care centers at discounted rates.

“Our organization is about 76 percent women, so we make sure that we are supporting and take care of our female employee population,” Laboy said. “And that includes helping them fully fulfill their responsibilities, in and outside of work.”