Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

For women, having a child is a bad career move, and having one as a highly skilled earner is even worse. For each child she has, a woman suffers a "motherhood penalty" of 4% of income.

According to research, published last week in the American Sociological Review, for high-skilled, high-paid workers that penalty climbs to 10% per child. When you’re on the fast track, your income grows quickly, so taking a break to raise children carries a greater cost.

High-flying women who take off two years to raise their children will miss out on projects, raises and career opportunities that will have a big financial impact down the line.

"Any amount they do drop out or go down to part-time is going to be more costly for them," says Paula England, a professor of sociology at New York University and the lead researcher on the study.

That’s one reason fewer high-wage women drop out of the workforce. A Pew analysis from 2014 found that "opt-out moms" — mothers who have at least a master’s degree and an annual family income of $75,000 or more, and who left the workforce to care for their families — make up just 4% or so of mothers who stay at home with their children.

And those who do stay at home describe it as less of a choice than a shove. In a 2009 Center for Work-Life Policy survey of women with advanced degrees or with high-honours undergraduate degrees, 69% of respondents said they would not have "opted out" to care for their children if their jobs had been more flexible.

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a representative survey in the US of more than 5,000 women that has tracked employment and family information throughout the adult lives of the respondents.

The penalty hurts mothers at the low end of the pay scale, too, and may hit them harder, since they typically have fewer resources, less disposable income and less flexitime. But those at the highest end face the disproportionate income loss.

As for men, no problem. They get a fatherhood bonus, a rise of more than 6% in earnings for every child they have. To employers, being a dad signals stability and commitment.

Even in workplaces that offer flexibility, women have reported penalties for taking advantage of the options, such as loss of responsibility or longer hours than promised.

Once back in the office full-time, working mothers face various stereotypes. Research has found that mothers get competency ratings 10% lower than other women. These perceptions affect earnings.

Moms are also less likely to be considered for jobs. In one study, researchers sent out CVs to employers in which the only difference between the candidates was a line about being a member of the parent-teacher association. Mothers got called back half as often as fathers.

To the contrary, studies have found that moms are more productive workers. The thought-leadership industrial complex has even called having kids a "productivity hack".


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