Volume 16, Issue 6 e12988
Open Access

Beyond measurement of the motherhood penalty: How social locations shape mothers' work decisions and stratify outcomes

Sarah Morgan Deming

Corresponding Author

Sarah Morgan Deming

Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA


Sarah Morgan Deming, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA.

Email: [email protected]

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First published: 06 May 2022
Citations: 1


Despite the shrinking of the gender wage gap, women with children continue to experience earnings and career disadvantages that women without children do not experience. This review first summarizes how the severity of the “motherhood penalty” is influenced by a woman's marital status and class in ways that perpetuate existing inequalities. Next, it outlines how the same factors also play salient roles in determining women's workforce behaviors upon transitioning to motherhood, largely dictating the extent to which women's earnings and careers are negatively impacted by the arrival of children. After establishing the stratified lines upon which mothers' decisions are made, and the disparate financial ramifications of their decisions, the paper concludes with a call for future research into the mechanisms that propel mothers' labor market decisions.

The past half-century has been marked by what economist Claudia Goldin (2014) called a “grand gender convergence.” Women's educational attainment has surpassed men's (Blau & Kahn, 2017), and gender gaps in labor force participation rates and earnings have narrowed substantially. When the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, women in the United States earned only 60% of men's pay (The White House, 2013); by 2018 the figure had risen to 82% (Bleiweis, 2020). However, these types of “82 cents on the dollar” statistics are based on ratios of earnings between full-time, year-round male and female workers, which obscures gendered variation in work hours as well as persistent differences in compensation across racial and ethnic lines.1 The wage gap figure also fails to capture the dramatic divergence that occurs as men and women become parents (Blau & Kahn, 2017; Goldin, 2014). While employed, unmarried, and childless women age 25–29 recently reached earning parity with their male counterparts (Iceland & Redstone, 2020), female labor market participation and earnings both drop precipitously upon the transition to motherhood (Blau & Kahn, 2017). Men, however, often experience a wage increase when they become fathers (Budig & Hodges, 2010; Glauber, 2008, 2018). The financial impacts of parenthood—a “motherhood penalty” paired with a “fatherhood premium”—are increasingly responsible for the remaining gender wage gap (Cortés & Pan, 2020).

Women's progress in the economic sphere has been accompanied by the increasing labor force attachment of mothers. While only 34% of women with a child under 3 years old were working in 1975, by 2019 the share had nearly doubled to 64% (Mothers and Families, 2019). Despite their increasing employment, however, women continue to perform a disproportionate share of unpaid household labor in heterosexual households, and the imbalance expands dramatically as couples become parents (Yavorsky et al., 2015). American work culture remains largely oriented toward an unincumbered “ideal worker” (Acker, 1990; Correll et al., 2014) that assumes a gender-delineated division of paid work and (unpaid) caretaking work (Gornick & Meyers, 2009). Other countries facilitate maternal employment with paid parental leave and subsidized child care, but the United States' public policies for working families remain “virtually non-existent” (Williams, 2010). Only 56% of American workers are eligible for the 12 weeks guaranteed by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (Brown et al., 2020). Low-wage workers are disproportionately ineligible, and the unpaid nature of FMLA leave makes it financially untenable for many individuals (Brown 2020). Recent analysis found that only 41% of American women received any paid maternity leave, and those who did averaged a mere 3.3 weeks at 31% of wage replacement (Shepherd-Banigan & Bell, 2014).

Under a free-market approach, where parents are largely left to reconcile caretaking responsibilities with private resources (Collins, 2019; Gornick & Meyers, 2003), women in America frequently respond to motherhood by altering both how and/or how much they work for pay (Gangl & Ziefle, 2009; Killewald & García-Manglano, 2016). These “choices” often lead to labor market disadvantage and depressed lifetime earnings (Jee et al., 2019)—the motherhood penalty. But just as summary measures obscure variation in the gender wage gap, these financial and career impacts of motherhood are not borne equally across all women.

To understand where and how this variation occurs, one must consider the demographic backdrop of women's labor market progress—most notably, shifting patterns of partnership and childbearing. Declining rates of marriage and increased age at first marriage have been paired with increasing cohabitation and divorce rates (Cherlin, 2004; Ellwood & Jencks, 2004; Lesthaeghe, 2010). The share of nonmarital births has increased (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004), while access to birth control (Goldin & Katz, 2002) and abortion (Myers, 2017) has allowed women to postpone, limit, or forgo pregnancy altogether, driving fertility rates down. The “diverging destinies” perspective (McLanahan, 2004; Musick & Michelmore, 2018) highlights how these changing patterns of marriage and family formation are increasingly shaped by level of education in ways that perpetuate disadvantage. For example, educational attainment is now positively associated with marriage (Lundberg et al., 2016) and partnered parenthood. While only 48% of women without a bachelor's degree are married at the time of their first birth, among college graduates the share climbs to 91% (Byker, 2016). Research suggests that education similarly shapes the financial consequences of motherhood, with broad empirical consensus that more highly-educated mothers bear smaller penalties—or avoid them altogether (Amuedo-Dorantes & Kimmel, 2005; Anderson et al., 2003; Budig & Hodges, 2014; Cukrowska-Torzewska & Matysiak, 2020; Pal & Waldfogel, 2016).

A vast body of evidence highlights how women's role in raising children leads to financial disadvantage and perpetuates gender inequality. This review adds to the existing literature by exploring how the earnings and career consequences of motherhood are differentially experienced across social locations. It draws an important, yet rarely highlighted, distinction between net penalties that account for various differences—such as work experience—between mothers and non-mothers, and gross penalties, which capture the very real ways that children impact women's labor market behaviors and subsequent wages in real life, outside of regression equations. Finally, it synthesizes how the antecedents of the motherhood penalty—the decision-making factors that influence the subsequent employment trajectories mothers pursue—are also shaped by social class in ways that stratify outcomes.

The article begins by summarizing the theoretical underpinnings and most recent empirical research on the motherhood penalty. Next, it weaves together two components of the maternal employment literature typically considered in isolation of each other: (1) the extent to which a woman's marital status and class location influences the magnitude of the wage penalty she experiences; (2) the decision-making factors that shape mothers' employment decisions and labor market behaviors—also stratified across social class lines. The paper concludes with a call for future research into the mechanisms by which mothers' social locations translate into labor market behaviors and subsequent consequences. When women who enter motherhood with marital, educational, and income advantage generally incur fewer “penalties,” existing patterns of inequality are perpetuated and even exacerbated. Understanding how social context influences mothers' employment decisions is crucial for ameliorating the earnings and career consequences mothers continue to face.


1.1 Theoretical explanations

As white, middle-class women increasingly entered the labor market during the second half of the twentieth century, interest in explaining their persistently lower wages relative to those of men grew. Early research was largely predicated on a selection effect argument that mothers differed from non-mothers in ways that suppressed their earnings (Fuchs, 1971). Such explanations were often implicitly or explicitly predicated on assumptions about innate gender differences. Women were also hypothesized to earn less than men because they accumulated less human capital in the form of education and work experience (e.g. Mincer & Polachek, 1974). Economist Gary Becker applied principles of comparative advantage to explain why couples would logically specialize along gender lines, with male partners focusing on market work while females directed their energies to household labor. When they did work outside the home, Becker (1985) theorized that mothers' time spent in housework and childcare tasks reduced the work effort they directed toward employment, leading to lower earnings as well as employer-based discrimination against mothers. A theory of compensating differentials argued that working mothers consciously chose flexibility and other supposedly family-friendly employment features in exchange for reduced earnings (Filer, 1985; Smith, 1979). Gender theorists supposed that women with children faced discrimination because motherhood was a devalued social status (Ridgeway & Correll, 2004) and because mothers' assumed role as primary caretakers led employers to underestimate their competence for and interest in career advancement (Coltrane, 2004).

1.2 Empirical evidence

Researchers have tested these theoretical explanations over the past several decades, using measurable proxies for compensating differentials, selection effects, work effort, human capital, and discrimination. While the evidence suggests that each play a role in mothers' wage penalties, human capital explanations have formed the foundation of motherhood penalty scholarship. Martha Hill (1979) pioneered empirical testing of human capital theory, concluding that work experience gaps and employer tenure entirely explained the wage differences between women with and without children. In Waldfogel's (1997) analysis, the penalty for one child dropped from 6% to 4% once her model added in controls for part-time work, and Budig and England (2001) found that past job experience (including both employment breaks and part-time employment) accounted for roughly one-third of the motherhood penalty. More recent analysis by Yu and Kuo (2017) estimated that differences in human capital accounted for an even larger share—62% of the penalty in their model. Leonard and Stanley (2020) similarly concluded that omitting women's actual experience from their meta-regression increased the estimated motherhood penalty by 4.4%. In addition to earnings consequences, employment breaks for childcare and reductions in work hours are also associated with reduced occupational status between mothers and non-mothers (Abendroth et al., 2014; Aisenbrey et al., 2009)

Using linked employer-employee data from Canada, Fuller (2018) found support for one component of the compensating differentials theory: mothers' disproportionate representation in firms that pay less, but offer hypothesized mother-friendly attributes like part-time work. Controlling for job characteristics such as public sector work and occupation type reduced the penalty by two percentage points in a cross-national metanalysis (Cukrowska-Torzewska & Matysiak, 2020). Budig and England (2001) found small effects when incorporating job characteristics, while Leonard and Stanley's meta-regression (2020) found little effect for part-time, occupation, or industry variables. Goldin (2014) introduced another avenue by which job characteristics might influence gender wage gaps more broadly: compensation mechanisms that disproportionately reward long hours and punish temporal flexibility in ways that advantage less encumbered (typically male) employees. A trend of growing wage premiums for “overwork” (50+ hours per week) coupled with mothers' reduced odds of engaging in such work have also exacerbated motherhood-based wage gaps (Cha & Weeden, 2014; Weeden et al., 2016).

Testing for selection effects among mothers yields conflicting results. Mothers do have lower levels of education than childless women overall (Jee et al., 2019), but among employed mothers, the selection effect works in the opposite direction; controlling for selection into employment lowers, rather than raises, the wage gap (Cukrowska-Torzewska & Matysiak, 2020). Staff and Mortimer (2012), analyzing longitudinal employment patterns of women, find only very small differences between future mothers and those who never have children in the amount of time spent out of the labor force (and not in school) prior to motherhood.

Whether mothers devote less effort to their paid work because of caretaking obligations is also empirically unclear. Mothers with younger children were found to incur higher penalties than those with older children (Anderson et al., 2003), and young children negatively impacted the job performance of female lawyers in ways that older children did not (Azmat & Ferrer, 2017). Employing a more diverse national sample, Kmec (2011) found no differences between the work effort or work intensity of women with children versus those without children.

Finally, resume audit experiments confirm that mothers face discrimination in hiring, wage-setting, and promotion practices (Correll et al., 2007; García-Manglano, 2015; Weisshaar, 2018), all of which contribute to their earnings disparities. In light of a finding that mothers face greater across-employer penalties than within-employer penalties, Yu and Hara (2021) similarly conclude that employer discrimination—particularly in hiring—likely contributes to the wage penalties mothers face.

Most research on the motherhood penalty quantifies the share of the earnings gaps that can be explained by various focal variables. Scholars generally conclude that any unexplained earnings differences between mothers and non-mothers result from non-observable factors, such as discrimination; the remaining earning disparity is labeled the “motherhood penalty.” Early analyses (Budig & England, 2001; Waldfogel, 1997, 1998) found the penalty to range between 4% and 12%, depending on a woman's parity, while a more recent meta-regression of 49 studies placed this price of motherhood in the United States in the range of 2%–4% of earnings per child (Leonard & Stanley, 2020). These summary figures of “net” or “adjusted” penalties facilitate cross-national comparisons (Cukrowska-Torzewska & Matysiak, 2020; Gangl & Ziefle, 2009) and the tracking of trends over time (Avellar & Smock, 2003; Glauber, 2018; Weeden et al., 2016), but for a more holistic account of how the penalty operates, the review next synthesizes empirical findings of the role that marital status, class,2 and race play in shaping the wage differentials between mothers and non-mothers.


Budig and England's (2001) fixed-effects model controlled for selection effects and found that never-married mothers faced smaller penalties than both married and divorced mothers. Taking into account a mother's number of children, however, revealed that married women with one child earned more than unmarried women, while married mothers with two children experienced no earnings consequences, and only married mothers with more than two children faced wage penalties. Glauber (2008) performed a similar analysis, but included an interaction between marital status, number of children, and a mother's race/ethnicity. Her findings reveal that Hispanic mothers avoided the wage consequences of motherhood regardless of marital status or number of children, and married African American mothers with one or two children similarly experienced no wage penalty. Both married and never-married White mothers in her sample earned less than White non-mothers. Employing a more contemporary set of longitudinal data, Staff and Mortimer discovered that adding marriage or cohabitation into their two-level hierarchical model slightly increased women's wages but left the motherhood penalty unaffected. Analyzing trends over time across relationship status, Pal and Waldfogel (2016) found that by 2011–2013, married mothers experienced a wage premium over their childless counterparts, while single mothers' pay gaps grew. Other more recent analysis confirms the finding that married women experience smaller child-related penalties than single women (Cukrowska-Torzewska & Matysiak, 2020).

Mothers' penalties are also shaped by their levels of educational attainment, their location in the earnings distribution, and characteristics of their occupations. The literature about the role that education plays in influencing motherhood penalties is contradictory. Waldfogel (1997) found that wage penalties tended to increase as education level increased, and Anderson et al. (2002) found no child-based wage gaps among the least educated mothers. However, the bulk of the research finds that education reduces or protects against penalties (Amuedo-Dorantes & Kimmel, 2005; Budig & England, 2001; Budig & Hodges, 2014; Cukrowska-Torzewska & Matysiak, 2020; Pal & Waldfogel, 2016). Doren (2019)'s analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) data showed that college-educated mothers not only experience lower wage penalties across the board, but that their penalties decrease as age at first birth rises; by age 30 college-educated mothers experience a wage premium compared to childless counterparts.

Glauber (2018) found that the penalty has been largely eliminated among high-earning women, while several researchers have demonstrated that low-wage women continue to experience greater financial disadvantage as a result of having children (Budig & Hodges, 2014; Cooke, 2014). Before controlling for experience, England and colleagues' (2016) analysis found that White women who were both highly skilled and in high-wage jobs faced the largest total penalties—due in large part to greater work experience and greater rates of financial return for said experience. After controlling for work experience and job tenure, however, the net penalties experienced by women of varying skill and wage levels were statistically insignificant.

Analysis of differences among occupation types found that mothers in traditionally female occupations still suffer a penalty compared to their childless counterparts, while mothers in male-dominated professions (such as STEM, medicine, and law) now earn more than women without children (Buchman & McDaniel, 2016). Yu and Kuo (2017) explored a more comprehensive array of occupational characteristics, revealing that penalties were nearly nonexistent in jobs with high autonomy, low teamwork requirements, or low levels of competitiveness.

Early analysis of the motherhood penalty found that Black mothers experienced a smaller wage penalty than White mothers (Hill, 1979; Waldfogel, 1997). Budig and England (2001) found that net penalties were smaller for Latina mothers and roughly similar for White and Black mothers, but after accounting for parity, White mothers with three or more children experienced higher penalties than both Black and Latina mothers with three or more children. A more recent analysis of trends in the penalty over time, however, reveals that as overall motherhood penalties decreased, earlier patterns of lower or nonexistent gaps for Black mothers reversed; by 2013, Black mothers faced penalties in the 3%–5% range compared to White mothers' penalties of less than 2% (Pal & Waldfogel, 2016). The same analysis found that Hispanic mothers experienced only insignificant wage gaps from their childless counterparts.

Some of the contradictory findings about the penalties (or premiums) mothers face stem from analyses that consider factors in isolation rather than acknowledging the ways that categories such as race, marital status, and class are “best understood in relational terms rather than in isolation from one another” (Collins, 2015, p. 15). Given the increasingly robust correlations between an individual's education level and their subsequent employment, marriage, and fertility patterns, research that explores wage penalties across multiple axes will paint a more complete picture of which women are truly advantaged or disadvantaged by the transition to motherhood. For example, when including marital status in their analysis of motherhood penalties across the income distribution, Budig and Hodges (2010) found that never-married mothers in the bottom quantile experienced lower penalties, while at the highest earnings level, never-married mothers earned a wage premium. Increased age at first birth—which is highly shaped by education—also reduces wage penalties (Gough, 2017). While high-earning professional women who had a first child prior to age 25 experienced the largest wage penalty, those who waited until after age 29 experienced a wage premium (Landivar, 2020). Considered together, the empirical consensus shows that certain social factors—being married, highly-educated and/or skilled, and earning higher wages—operate in concert to protect women from motherhood-related wage consequences. While estimating the magnitude of net penalties and tracking the extent to which they change over time and vary across social locations can reveal an important part of the story, the complementary strand of literature explores the actual labor market behaviors of mothers. To understand how women's marital status and class positions might translate to wage penalties—or premiums—the review next synthesizes the evidence regarding the gross penalties mothers face as a result of their disparate labor market behaviors.

2.1 Gross penalties and the role of labor market behavior

When researchers (e.g., Leonard and Stanley, 2020) state that after controlling for x, y, and z factors, mothers now earn 2% lower log wages than non-mothers, the true earnings and career consequences of motherhood are understated. Specifically, this 2% figure fails to account for: (1) the penalties incurred as a result of mothers' reduced labor market experience; (2) the cumulative nature of penalties, whose impacts can build in magnitude over time (Kahn et al., 2014; Sigle-Rushton & Waldfogel, 2007); and (3) the non-monetary costs mothers also face, such as stalled occupational attainment (Abendroth et al., 2014) and difficulty re-entering the labor market after an absence (Weisshaar, 2018).

A focus on net penalties also obscures the disparate lived experiences of non-White mothers, who in a context of historic and persistent racial inequality, face reduced educational and occupational opportunities as well as employment discrimination—all of which depress human capital acquisition and earnings (Campbell & Kaufman, 2006; Oliver & Shapiro, 1995). Race also shapes women's marital and childbearing patterns in ways that influence their wage trajectories (Blau & Winkler, 2017; Florian, 2018). Thus, while holding constant women's education, work experience, marital status, and age at first birth might successfully isolate the variable of motherhood, measures of the “gross” penalty, before controlling for children's actual impact on women's work trajectories, better capture racial variation in both maternal labor market participation and wage impacts. For instance, when Van Winkle and Fasang (2020) charted women's wage growth from age 20–40, their unadjusted models starkly reveal how White, Black, and Hispanic women's wages were nearly identical at age 20, regardless of their parental status. As time went on, mothers in all racial categories experienced slower wage growth than childless women, but the concentration of non-White women into occupations with lower overall wages and flatter wage growth resulted in racial pay gaps such that White mothers with one child earned roughly $22/hour at age 40, Hispanic mothers of one child earned $21/hour and Black mothers earned only $18/hour.

Analysis by Kuziemko et al. (2018) revealed that American women “exhibit a sudden, large, persistent and robust drop in employment, coinciding with the birth of their first child” (p.13). In addition to leaving employment altogether, mothers are also more likely than men or women without children to reduce their paid work hours, pursue more flexible positions, and change employers (Abendroth et al., 2014; Gangl & Ziefle, 2009; Killewald & García-Manglano, 2016). Considered together, these labor market responses to the arrival of children account for a substantial portion of the wage differentials between mothers and non-mothers. Staff and Mortimer (2012) found that 60% of the penalty could be traced to differences in mothers' cumulative months out of the labor market and not enrolled in school (as compared to women without children). Work experience accounted for half of the total wage penalty in Gangle and Ziefle’s (2009) analysis. In tangible terms, a 26-year-old woman earning $30,253 (the median salary for a younger, full-time, full-year worker in 2014) is estimated to lose $467,000 over the course of her career for a 5-year caretaking break—a 19% reduction in lifetime earnings (Madowitz et al., 2016). By age 45, depending on the number of children they have, mothers in the U.S. have earned only 81%–89% of non-mothers’ earnings (Sigle-Rushton & Waldfogel, 2007).

Given the magnitude of these impacts, human capital differences between mothers and non-mothers are relevant beyond their role as control variables in pursuit of increasingly precise estimations of the motherhood penalty; rather, mothers' distinct labor market behaviors are themselves a significant source of the wage penalties mothers incur. Framed this way, women's decisions about how and whether to balance paid work with childrearing become worthy of examination in their own right. Some factors facilitate the management of caretaking responsibilities alongside paid work and thus reduce the various human capital-based consequences of motherhood; other factors constrain such balancing, increasing the likelihood that women will make work adjustments and experience wage and career penalties. The following section summarizes the empirical evidence about factors that influence mothers' work-related decision-making, from the individual-level to the policy-level. Exploring these decision-making levers can provide important clues about how the motherhood penalty operates, and why certain mothers are more likely to incur or avoid such penalties. Deepening our understanding of these processes can facilitate the development of policies that support maternal labor force attachment and ameliorate the earnings consequences of motherhood.


3.1 Individual-level factors

British sociologist Catherine Hakim (2002) offered a controversial explanation for women's heterogeneous work paths with her preference theory, which held that in the absence of institutional constraints, women simply have diverse preferences as to how they choose to prioritize work and family. Hakim was criticized for her near-disregard for the role that external constraints play in women's decision making (Duncan, 2005; McRae, 2003a). Research largely confirms that society has yet to reach the “absence of institutional constraints” pre-condition that Hakim stipulated; indeed, preferences do not translate automatically into realized situations. A survey of college seniors found that most preferred gender flexibility and egalitarianism; re-surveying the same women 16 years later revealed that expectations of sharing were often unrealized (Hoffnung & Williams, 2013). In a survey of 1141 mothers with young children, 71% had failed to achieve their employment preference (Holmes et al., 2012). However, women's early gender role attitudes do predict their later work hours and earnings (Corrigall & Konrad, 2007), and increases in prenatal egalitarian attitudes correspond with an increase in paid work hours after childbirth (Schober & Scott, 2012).

Research also suggests that a woman's racial and class background might influence expectations about combining paid work and employment. While the middle-class women Damaske (2011) interviewed presumed they would remain attached to the labor market—regardless of race—White and Latina working-class women described a more calculated process of deciding whether they would work continually or occasionally. Black women across the class spectrum in her sample largely assumed they would remain attached to the labor market. Feminist scholars and historians note that motherhood and paid work have historically been seen as less incompatible for Black women (Baca Zinn & Dill, 1996; Collins, 1990; Landry, 2000), a result of historical processes such as slavery and divergent cultural backgrounds. Indeed, Black mothers have significantly higher labor force participation rates than non-Hispanic White mothers, while Hispanic/Latina mothers exhibit the lowest rates (Zessoules et al., 2018). Hispanic mothers' lower levels of educational attainment (Mathews & Hamilton, 2019) and earnings (Wilson, 2017) likely influence their decisions about pursing employment, as do divergent expectations and beliefs about combining work and motherhood. For instance, opinion polls show that Hispanics are significantly more likely than non-Hispanic Whites or Blacks to agree that children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family— 73% compared with 57% (Livingston, 2014).

Women with higher levels of education exhibit greater labor market attachment after the transition to motherhood than those with lower levels of education (Musick et al., 2020). College-educated mothers are more likely to make voluntary job changes that result in wage increases than similar women without children, while lower-educated mothers are both less likely to voluntarily change employers and to reap smaller earnings benefits when they do (Looze, 2014). Women with higher levels of education are also more likely to remain employed following a household move than mothers with only a high school diploma (Landivar et al., 2021).

A woman's age at first birth and their pre-motherhood work behaviors and earnings also influence subsequent labor market behaviors. Lu et al. (2017) found that older mothers are more likely to scale back to part-time employment. Killewald and Zhuo's (2019) sequence analysis of women's employment trajectories found that women who gave birth after age 25 were more likely to remain continuously attached to the labor market than women with earlier first births. Higher pre-motherhood wages were similarly associated with decreased likelihood of following work trajectories that include time out of the labor force. Finally, women employed full-time immediately before the transition to motherhood showed significantly decreased odds of labor force exit (Shafer, 2011)

3.2 Family-level factors

Marital Status. Marital status can influence the decisions mothers makes about whether and how to engage in the labor force across multiple pathways. While mothers who share a partner's earnings can rely on increased financial resources, single mothers likely face greater caretaking demands than partnered mothers. Further, gendered norms of intensive mothering (Hays, 1996) continue to influence workforce behaviors—particularly among white middle and upper-middle class women for whom combining paid work with mothering is a relatively new phenomena (Collins, 2007; Greenman & Xie, 2008; Parrott, 2014).

Couple-level analysis confirms that while married individuals make work-related decisions in concert with one another, women tend to disproportionately absorb the employment impacts of parenthood (Killewald & García-Manglano, 2016). Women in heterosexual relationships assume they will make more career sacrifices than will their partners upon the transition to parenthood (Moen, 2015). Pregnant wives were more likely to view their husband's job as more important (regardless of the couple's employment situation) and two-thirds planned to make more of the work sacrifices (Stanley-Stevens & Kaiser, 2011). Accordingly, married women less frequently return to the labor market after a birth—particularly mothers with higher levels of education (Byker, 2016).

The beliefs that partners hold about gender roles also influence the work decisions of married mothers. Mothers with traditional partners take longer maternity leaves after childbirth and decrease their work hours to a greater degree than women married to more egalitarian men (Stertz et al., 2017). Research indicates that an imbalance between partners in unpaid caretaking work leads directly to women's decreased labor force participation and increased stress (Liu & Dyer, 2014). In countries where men contribute more to household production, women are more likely to participate in the labor market (de Laat & Sevilla-Sanz, 2011).

Household Income. Of course, decisions to scale back or opt out of paid work are intrinsically linked to financial resources. Indeed, a woman's earnings relative to those of her husband are found to strongly predict labor force exit (Shafer, 2011). Among women with MBAs, having a high-earning partner was strongly associated with a motherhood-related earning reduction; women with lower-earning spouses experienced far smaller declines (Bertrand et al., 2010). Greenman and Xie (2008) find that White women's labor force participation rates are particularly suppressed by their husband's higher earnings, while non-White mothers' odds of employment are less influenced by alternative household income. Damaske's (2011) qualitative exploration of how class intersects with mothers' employment pathways adds nuance to the relationship between household income and work decisions. She finds that greater financial resources facilitated middle-class women's ability to remain employed full-time, while the working-class women in her study were armed with fewer resources to navigate unexpected challenges that arose, and as a result they were less able to maintain steady employment.

3.3 Organizational-level factors

Beyond the individual and relational constraints lie the structures of workplaces, which can serve as significant influencers of mother's trajectories. The characteristics of a mother's paid work influences the types and extent of challenges she may face in combining working with childrearing. Flexibility has been found to support mother's workforce attachment—particularly when complemented with equitable implementation and supervisor support (Putnam et al., 2014). A study of 2443 highly-qualified women found workplace characteristics (flexibility in particular) to be of utmost importance to the retention of mothers in the workplace (Hewlett & Luce, 2014). Low-income mothers, however, face scrutiny and risk being fired when they seek flexibility to juggle their family and work commitments (Dodson, 2013).

Professional, high-status jobs tend to expect long hours and high commitment. Blair-Loy's (2005) interviewees were largely prompted to opt out or scale back to part-time work when (largely mutually exclusive) devotions to work collided with devotions to family. Stone's (2007) interviews with high-achieving mothers similarly found that even career-committed women eventually chose to leave the work they loved because of an inability to work part-time without being marginalized. Moe and Shandy's (2010) interviews with hundreds of high-powered couples (whose combined work hours regularly exceeded 100 h per week) revealed similar findings: it was the nature of the work and in particular the time requirements of high-level careers that pushed mothers (always the mothers) to scale back hours or quit entirely.

Low-wage jobs, in contrast, are often characterized by mandatory overtime, low autonomy, variable shifts, and little or no available leave time—all of which increase work-family conflict (Carlson et al., 2011; Perry-Jenkins et al., 2011). The working-class women in Damaske's (2011) sample were more apt to leave jobs not because of high working hour expectations but rather because they felt unappreciated or not justly compensated for their work. While both types of jobs present challenges to mothers with children who cannot perform as unencumbered “ideal workers” (Acker, 1990); higher-status jobs are more likely to offer benefits such as paid leave and options for flexibility that can help alleviate some of these challenges, while mothers employed in low-wage work sectors often lack such supports (Gerstel & Clawson, 2014; Kossek & Lautsch, 2018).

The characteristics of married women's partners' work also influence employment behaviors. Professional mothers whose husbands worked 50 or more hours per week had 44% higher odds of quitting their jobs than those whose husbands worked less than 50 h; these odds increased to 112% when husbands worked 60 or more hours per week (Cha, 2010). Other research has found similar relationships between partner work hours and women opting out or scaling back from paid employment (e.g., Shafer, 2011; Stone, 2007).

3.4 Policy-level factors

Maternal employment can be supported by the implementation of public policies aimed to increase women's workforce participation and de-gender caretaking norms. The evidence from cross-national studies is clear: work-family policies are a fundamental element in explaining why mothers fall further behind in some countries than in others (Boeckmann et al., 2015; Gangl & Ziefle, 2009). In fact, cross-national research by Blau and Kahn (2013) found that the United States' lack of family-friendly policies (such as paid leave, subsidized childcare, and rights to request part-time work) accounted for roughly 30% of the growing difference in women's labor force participation across OECD countries. Budig et al. (2012) note that parental leaves and public childcare were most associated with higher earnings for mothers when they were complemented with cultural support for maternal employment.

Analysis of 15 European countries found smaller differences in preferred work hours between mothers of preschoolers and childless women in countries with high child care provisions (Pollmann-Schult, 2016). In the United States, with limited access to subsidized childcare, the cost and availability of child care can constrain mother's workforce participation (McRae, 2003a; Tomlinson, 2006), especially among low-income mothers (Debacker, 2008) and single mothers (Connelly & Kimmel, 2000). A survey exploring the employment preferences versus employment status of over 2000 mothers revealed that among mothers who were not currently working but wanted to work, a lack of access to childcare was the main barrier to their employment (Ciciolla et al., 2017). Ruppaner and colleagues' (2021) analysis revealed that childcare cost at the state level was negatively associated with maternal employment. Similarly, married mothers who move to states with higher childcare costs had significantly lower odds of employment than mothers who moved to states where care was less costly (Landivar et al., 2021).

Finally, availability of paid maternity leave has generally been found to support mothers' continued employment. Women who utilize paid maternity leave have higher post-motherhood labor market participation rates (Boushey, 2008; Rossin-Slater et al., 2013), and are more likely to report pay increases in the year following their leave-taking than similar mothers who do not take paid leave (Houser & Vartanian, 2012).


As the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe in early 2020, responses at the family-level threw into stark relief the ways that decision-making is influenced by both structural constraints and culturally defined ideas of appropriate roles for men and women. Early data showing gender disparities in labor force exit were hypothesized to result from industry-related factors; however, detailed analysis refutes the explanation that women were disproportionately impacted because job losses and layoffs were concentrated in certain fields (Cajner et al., 2020; Dias et al., 2020). Instead, it appears that parenthood status played a significant role in determining who left work or reduced paid work. In April of 2020, a Census Household Pulse surveyed individuals who were out of work due to Covid. Of the respondents who cited “providing care for children not in school or daycare” as the reason for their labor force absence, 80% were women (Rhubart, 2020).

Qian and Hu's (2021) analysis paints an optimistic picture, noting that changes in couples' work patterns seem to be based on measures of human capital (which partner held higher level of education) than on gender specialization. But the bulk of the evidence suggests instead that mothers disproportionately shouldered the pandemic-spurred increase in unpaid labor (Calarco et al., 2021; Giurge et al., 2021), and then correspondingly absorbed the employment impacts as well. Mothers decreased their work hours by a greater margin than fathers (Landivar et al., 2020), while fathers faced smaller employment rate decreases than mothers, non-mothers, and non-fathers (Dias et al., 2020).

Research by Collins et al. (2021) found that during the early months of the pandemic (February through April 2020), mothers of young children in dual-earner, heterosexual married couples reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers. To control for work hour adjustments that were employee versus employer-driven, the authors performed additional analysis of couples where both could telecommute. In this model, too, mothers faced disadvantage: reducing their paid work hours by 7% compared to fathers who reduced their hours by 30 min, or 1%.

Glass et al. (2021) poignantly note that in the absence of a social safety net, mothers in the United States are left as the “the de facto shock absorbers of a postindustrial occupational structure that produces growing instability in parents' employment and relationships” (p.3) In much the same way that the employment paths of mothers in “normal,” pre-pandemic times, were shaped and constrained by the demands of caretaking, qualitative interviews with parents reveal that gendered caregiving norms and gaps in structural support lead mothers to similarly take on a disproportionate share of the pandemic parenting “by default” (Calarco et al., 2021).


Considered together, both the earnings and career consequences mothers incur as a result of their labor market behaviors and the penalties they experience net of behaviors maintain gender-based economic disadvantage. Indeed, several researchers agree that gender wage gaps are now predominantly attributed to differences between parents and individuals without children (Cortés & Pan, 2020; Kleven et al., 2019). Not only are the negative consequences of motherhood more concentrated among groups facing pre-existing economic disadvantage—single mothers, less educated mothers, and those with lower earnings—but many of these social characteristics also correspond with a constrained ability to maintain labor force attachment.

Access to a partner's earnings, paid maternity leave, supportive or flexible workplaces, and childcare expenses that don't overwhelm a household's budget all expand the options available to women as they make decisions about pursuing paid work alongside mothering. Each is also associated with pre-existing social advantages. On the other hand, income precarity and unsupportive, inflexible, and unpredictable work—both associated with pre-existing disadvantage—constrain mothers' options. Considered together, a mothers' social location influences the severity of penalties in ways that perpetuate existing inequalities.


Despite a vast body of research exploring the motherhood penalty, some omissions and shortcomings continue to limit our understanding of this phenomenon whereby the arrival of children negatively impacts women's employment, earnings, and career trajectories. Much of the motherhood penalty research uses cross-sectional data, which do not allow for the observation of how labor force participation evolves over time. Researchers who have employed a longitudinal, or life course, approach to analyze mothers' work paths (e.g. Abendroth et al., 2014; García-Manglano, 2015; Moen & Sweet, 2004) find that there are more processes involved than cross-sectional data can capture. In addition, individual-level data obscures the ways that married mothers make decisions in concert with their spouses (Killewald & García-Manglano, 2016; Stertz et al., 2017), and how motherhood penalties are shaped by corresponding behaviors of fathers (Musick et al., 2020). The literature is also largely dominated by quantitative analysis that focuses on how various characteristics of women influence the wage penalty (or premium) that they experience. As Barbara Reskin (2003) points out, these types of analyses are useful for illustrating that disparities exist between mothers and non-mothers, and the extent to which the penalty varies in magnitude across social locations, but they are less adept at identifying the mechanisms propelling such differences.

Existing qualitative work has shed light on some of the decision-making processes and other how components of the motherhood penalty, but these explorations typically focus on narrow categories of mothers3: professional women who have “opted out” of the workforce (Stone, 2007), Black middle and upper-middle class mothers (Dow, 2016), and low-income mothers in urban (Dodson, 2013) and rural settings (Sano et al., 2010). Each of these qualitative efforts has added immeasurably to our understanding of motherhood penalties, but exploring variation across women of varying marital statuses and social classes could further our attempts to unravel the mechanisms whereby these social locations are translated into employment decisions and subsequent consequences—or rewards.

Predicated on the fact that the transition to parenthood is a crucial fluctuation point in mothers' employment trajectories (Doren, 2019; Killewald & García-Manglano, 2016; Lu et al., 2017), qualitative interviews with expectant parents who vary across the same social locations identified as salient to labor market decision-making could facilitate understanding of the processes whereby some women incur, and some avoid, the wage and career consequences of motherhood. Interviewing mothers, and their partners, about employment-related decisions both before and after the transition to parenthood would offer an opportunity to explore how certain characteristics of women translate to plans regarding their post-motherhood employment, the extent to which mothers realize said plans, as well as the ways in which their labor market behaviors translate to earnings and career consequences.

Sociologists are particularly concerned with explaining inequalities that emerge along the lines of ascribed statuses such as race and gender. While becoming a mother requires deliberate action, the fact that 86% of American women between the ages of 40–44 were mothers in 2016 (Livingstone, 2018) and roughly 45% of all births are characterized as unintended (Finer & Zolna, 2016) suggests that motherhood might also be considered an ascriptive status. Research by Ridgeway and Correll (2004) confirms that mothers' assumed roles as primary caretakers have turned motherhood into a salient status characteristic that carries with it assumptions of “lower status and lesser general competence (beyond the specialized realm of nurturance)” (p. 697).

The present analysis has compiled a comprehensive amount of evidence to suggest that mothers are not only disadvantaged in earnings and career outcomes when they behave nearly identically to their counterparts without children, but even more so when they behave as mothers do: by responding to a cultural and structural environment that expects them to bear the primary responsibility for the work of childrearing without substantive policy support. As Budig and England (2001) conclude:

A wage penalty for motherhood is relevant to larger issues of gender inequality. Most women are mothers, and women do most of the work of child rearing. Thus, any "price" of being a mother that is not experienced by fathers will affect many women and contribute to gender inequality. (p. 221)

Twenty years later, mothers continue to disproportionately absorb the employment impacts of parenthood in ways that inflict lasting earnings and career consequences. That mothers from certain social locations are protected from these impacts while others are disproportionately exposed suggests that motherhood serves as an axis of stratification that contributes to the persistence of the gender wage gap and reinforces patterns of existing inequality. To design policies that can most effectively ameliorate these impacts of motherhood, we must first understand the mechanisms by which mothers' social locations translate into disparate paid work paths.


  • 1 A portion of the wage gap is attributed to women's overrepresentation in female-dominated (and lower-paying) fields, but women's increasing levels of education combined with their increasing representation in previously male-dominated fields has reduced the saliency of occupational segregation. Recent analysis by Goldin (2021) concludes that achieving a perfect gender equity by occupation would only eliminate 1/3 of the gender gap.
  • 2 This analysis adopts Usdansky's (2011) definition of class as a composite measure of educational attainment, occupation, and income—all three of which have been found to influence wage gaps.
  • 3 A notable exception to qualitative work considering women of one particular class is Sarah Damaske's (2011) pathbreaking exploration of work and family trajectories across class categories.


  • Sarah Morgan Deming is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Washington State University researching the intersection of motherhood and women's paid work. She holds a BA in Sociology from Western Washington University and a MS in Family and Consumer Sciences from the University of Idaho.