Women begin to earn less after having their first child

first child, women's earnings

Women’s earnings have been found to decrease following the birth of their first child – but the drop in salary is not applicable to fathers

Research finds that once women have their first child in the US, their earnings decrease substantially when compared to the income of the father.

Despite expansive increases in other aspects of gender equality policy – especially to tackle discrimination against employed women who choose to become mothers – this gender pay gap has barely improved.

Cornell University researchers analysed the relative decrease in earnings for women across the US, incorporating data from their education levels and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, they found that the decrease in earnings of mothers is applicable across all education levels.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic may be responsible for some of the income imbalance, as mothers who took care of their children frequently found it harder to be hired and faced wage penalties as they sought to renew their careers afterwards.

“The gender revolution has stalled, and women remain economically vulnerable.”

US offers little economic support for working mothers, unlike other wealthy nations

The article, published by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin, found that the US offers no mandated paid leave following childbirth, no system of subsidised childcare and scant public support for working families.

This disparity existing in the US makes it an outlier to numerous other wealthy nations, and increasingly makes parenthood a struggle for families – particularly mothers – to raise kids without a full-time job, or even, having a husband.

The researchers analysed around 30 years worth of data, from the 1980s through the 2000s, finding a brief period in the 1980s when wives became less financially dependent on their husbands after parenthood.

Tracking what happened to the incomes of couples over a full 10 years, the researchers used detailed survey results and administrative tax records that provide long-run data on earnings, birth and marriage dates and key characteristics such as education.

Kelly Musick, of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, said: “The gender revolution has stalled, and women remain economically vulnerable.”

Families can become economically dependent on men, causing power imbalance

Overall, the data demonstrated that wives’ earnings share dropped 13 percentage points following the first child born to a family during the 1980s, relative to 10 percentage points in the 2000s.

This minor difference remained even despite differences in education or income level of the husband and wife.

The researchers suggested that the similarities in education were a small surprise due to disparities – especially among those with and without a college degree – having grown in other aspects of family life over this time period.

Musick said: “Across groups, wives become more financially dependent on their husbands after parenthood. The pandemic puts into sharp relief the pitfalls of our fend-for-yourself approach to managing work and family.”

The pandemic, though harming a lot of women’s careers, could also create an opening for policymakers to build a stronger “infrastructure of care” – to which the success of that effort can help to shape gender inequalities in work and family in the decades to come.


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