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Is There Still a Penalty for Having Children?

Exploring the accuracy of the motherhood earnings penalty in the 21st century
Source: DGLimages

Extensive research about the “motherhood (earnings) penalty” shows that mothers have a lower employment rate and lower wages than men and childless women. However, as societies have changed in the 21st century, research about this phenomenon has to adapt. In order to better reflect the current reality, comparisons must go beyond the mothers versus childless women divide. Family structures and patterns have evolved, such as greater union instability and postponement of parenthood, leading to a wide variety of family trajectories. In addition, research has not focused much on women’s personal earnings at higher age, which are a reflection of economic independence and vulnerability. 

To fill some of these research gaps, Joanne S. Muller (Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) and University of Groningen), Nicole Hiekel (NIDI and University of Cologne) and Aart C. Liefbroer (NIDI, University of Groningen and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) studied how different family trajectories are associated with women’s later-life employment and personal earnings. They also looked at the extent to which the association between women’s family trajectories and later-life labour market outcomes vary among countries. They used data on women aged 50 to 59 from the Generations and Gender Programme, the British Household Panel Survey and SHARELIFE for 22 European countries collected between 2004 and 2013. Taking women’s partnership and childbearing histories from age 18 to 50, they created a typology of family trajectories. Almost 70 per cent of the women were in a cluster related to being in a partnered relationship with children. 12 per cent were childless with either a partner or no partner and 18 per cent were single mothers.

The authors found there was no strict employment and earnings divide between women with and without children. Earnings among single mothers and women with partners who delayed motherhood are similar to earnings of childless women. However, women that became mothers at a young age and had a lifelong partner (the traditional trajectory) were the most penalised. In comparison, partnered women who delayed motherhood earned 10.2 per cent more in later life than women who had children early. This translates to more time spent with dependent children meant lower earnings later on. Looking at employment, partnered women that delayed having children had the highest employment rate. Their postponement of having children suggests they had an increased chance of remaining attached to the labour market, i.e. it was easier to return. Single mothers and women without children did not have higher employment rates than partnered mothers. 

This paper shows that midlife family trajectory has long-lasting consequences for women’s personal earnings and employment. Labour market earnings have an accumulating nature, which means that it is important for women to be able to reconcile work and family so they can be more economically independent later on. In countries where reconciling work and family during midlife is easier, the labour market outcomes of women from different family trajectories will converge and decrease economic inequality between women until retirement. 

This research shows the connection between women’s fertility and partnership behaviour and the influence they have on employment and earnings until later in life. Therefore, societies should promote equal employment opportunities in order to influence women’s economic independence in the long-term.


Author(s) of the original publication: 
Emily Lines