No gender pay gap progress? Women’s earnings still drop significantly following childbirth

ITHACA, N.Y. — Numerous efforts in recent years have sought to correct gender pay inequality and ensure better gender equality in the workplace in general. Sadly, recently released research finds new moms’ earnings still drop substantially relative to dads’ after having their first child. Unfortunately, this latest research from Cornell University suggests much more work is needed to truly reverse this decades-old pattern.

According to the findings, the relative drop in earnings among new mothers is consistent across all levels of education achieved. Moreover, study authors theorize the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened matters. Millions of mothers who took a break from their careers to have children over the past two years will now face even worse hiring prospects and wage penalties.

“The gender revolution has stalled, and women remain economically vulnerable,” says study co-author and sociologist Kelly Musick of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy in a university release.

Musick adds that the United States is very much an outlier among wealthy nations when it comes to paid time off. In the USA, paid leave after the birth of a child is not mandated. This fact, confounded by no system whatsoever of subsidized childcare and minimal, if any, public support for working families, makes starting a family in the United States uniquely difficult.

This project is among the first to investigate and analyze family earnings inequality changes over time. Study authors tracked the incomes of couples for a full decade. They then used detailed survey responses and administrative tax records to formulate a “long-run dataset” encompassing earnings, birth and marriage dates, and additional important considerations such as education.

All in all, a time period of about 30 years was analyzed (1980s-2000s). Interestingly, a brief period in the 1980s was noted in which wives tended to become less financially dependent on their husbands after having their first child. During the 1980s, wives’ earnings share dropped by 13 percentage points following their first birth, which would be relative to 10 percentage points by the 2000s. For the most part, this held true regardless of either spouse’s education or income level.

Researchers say they were surprised by the similarities seen across education levels. This is because the disparities, particularly among those with and without a college degree, increased across other aspects of family life during the tracking period.

“Across groups, wives become more financially dependent on their husbands after parenthood,” the study reads. This is an especially concerning finding in the United States, where divorce is very common and policy support for families is often lacking.

“The pandemic puts into sharp relief the pitfalls of our fend-for-yourself approach to managing work and family,” Musick concludes.

Study authors say the pandemic may actually represent an opportunity to fix this long-standing societal problem. COVID-19 has “created an opening” for policymakers and decision makers alike to create a stronger “infrastructure of care.” If successful, such an effort could help improve gender inequalities in the workplace, and at home, for a long time to come.

The study is published in Population and Development Review.

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