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While having children often leads to less pay for mothers, fatherhood leads to an increase: Men with children typically earn more than both women — with or without kids — and men without children. This parenthood paradox, at least in part, may be responsible for maintaining the gender pay gap, which has been consistent for 20 years.
Gender stereotypes around parents are so deeply embedded into American work culture that they have had a significant impact in not just how mothers are treated in the workplace, but in how employers compensate fathers, according to a new study of census data by the Pew Research Center, released Wednesday. Data was not collected on nonbinary people, so they were not part of the analysis.
Men tend to increase their work hours and receive a bonus when they have children, a phenomenon known as the “fatherhood wage premium.” Women, meanwhile, experience the “motherhood penalty,” which studies have found is closely tied to conscious or subconscious bias against mothers, who may be viewed by employers as less competent or committed to the job.
Pew found that the fatherhood premium has a larger effect in widening the pay gap during parenthood than the dip mothers experience in their pay. The fatherhood premium is so ingrained that dads ages 25 to 54 out earn women and men — regardless of parenthood status.
It’s the economic manifestation of the capitalist idea that fathers are breadwinners and need higher pay.
“Employers recognize family needs and they compensate for it through one channel and not the other,” said Rakesh Kochhar, a senior researcher at Pew and the author of the study.
The difference between the average pay for men and women across all industries and jobs makes up the gender pay gap. (Data on nonbinary Americans is typically not collected across job sectors, making it difficult to capture the full pay gap.) In 2022, women earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men on average when comparing median hourly earnings for full- and part-time workers. In 2002, the figure was 80 cents.
Black women and Latinas have seen the least progress toward closing the wage gap overall. The gap narrowed more quickly for White women between 1982 and 2022, Pew found, than for women of color.
In 2022, Black women earned 70 cents for every $1 earned by White men, and for Hispanic women it was 65 cents. White women earned 83 cents and Asian women earned 93 cents as compared to White men, but that figure obscures significant disparities for specific ethnic groups. Pew did not include data on Native American women, but in 2021, the pay gap for Native women was 51 cents on the White man’s $1, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
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The gap has narrowed for some: Pew’s research found that among young women workers ages 25 to 34, the gender pay gap has actually shrunk over time, bringing them near parity with men of the same age.
The inflection point seems to be in large part when workers have children. The more likely a woman is to have a child under 18 at home, the wider the pay gap becomes.
Women who were 25 to 34 in 2010 were earning 92 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to Pew’s analysis. By 2022, those women were 37 to 46 — the age group most likely to have kids under 18 at home — and their pay gap was wider, earning 84 cents on the man’s dollar.
The gap widens even more for women of color when they become mothers. The National Women’s Law Center found that in 2020, Latina moms earned 47 cents, Native American moms earned 49 cents and Black moms earned 52 cents compared to White dads.
A significant amount of women leave the workforce, whether through choice or necessity, due to the weight of caregiving responsibilities that disproportionately continue to fall on women. The United States remains the only developed country in the world without paid parental leave, and the child care system is a market failure: It’s so expensive it costs as much as an additional mortgage every month, but daycare centers often can’t pay workers much more than minimum wage, and therefore many struggle to attract employees. That cycle leaves more than 3.4 million children unable to access a child care slot at all, according to an analysis of 35 states including Washington, D.C.
On top of that, about a quarter of private sector and state and local government workers do not have access to the paid sick leave that would allow them to weather breakdowns in care. Because of some of these barriers, 1.4 million younger mothers left the workforce in 2022, Pew found.
“Taking care of a kid is a lot of work. It has a big burden and your work doesn't accommodate it — not fully, not enough,” said Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economic policy consultant with a focus on inequality. “What do families do? They have to be strategic … One of them is going to lean into the job and the other one is going to lean into care. It’s not about gender roles necessarily, it's about squaring the circle of having a kid and having a job.”
What ends up happening is a labor force participation gap between mothers and fathers. For parents ages 35 to 44, 94 percent of fathers were active in the workforce in 2022, compared with 75 percent of mothers, a gap of 19 percentage points. For men and women without children in the same age group, the gap is 6 percentage points.
“We know that motherhood changes the relationship that a woman could have with work — it would make sense that fatherhood does the same thing,” Edwards said. But the manifestation is different, she added. A study of layoffs during the pandemic found that fathers were least likely to get laid off compared to mothers and non-parents, in part because of notions of dads as breadwinners.
What’s important to remember, Edwards said, is that people tend to put the onus on women and how they choose to interact with work, rather than on the labor market and how it’s punishing mothers but rewarding fathers.
“I find that the conversation related to [the gender pay gap] tends to be really focused on women's choices and personalities. ‘Did you ask for that raise? What job did you take? Are you working full time?’” Edwards said. “If you consider it a performance metric of the labor market, and not a reflection of women's status in society, you can see where the labor market is failing — it's failing mothers.”
And that’s despite the fact that women have continued to make significant gains in other areas, including college education. By 2022, women had surpassed men in earning bachelor’s degrees. About 48 percent of employed women had at least a bachelor’s in 2022, compared with 41 percent of men. But about 20 years ago, the boost in earnings that workers enjoyed from having an advanced degree began to become less significant in closing the gap, Kochhar said.
Progress toward pay equity brought on by women’s growing involvement in fields dominated by men was also limited. In managerial jobs, for instance, women went from accounting for 26 percent of employment in 1982 to 40 percent in 2022, Pew found. The share of women in lower-paying jobs, including food service and administrative support, also fell in that same time period, but not enough to make up the difference.
Because the wage gap is calculated by taking into account earnings by all women and men, the overrepresentation of women in lower-paying positions has continued for decades to create a pay gap.
And then there is persisting discrimination. Pew conducted a survey of adults in October 2022 and found that half said a major reason for the pay gap is that employers treat women differently. Women were more likely than men to say they are treated differently, 61 percent compared to 37 percent.
“You're bumping up against the ceiling of parenthood, of discrimination, of gender stereotypes and social norms. And so despite gains in education, you're unable to push past that ceiling,” Kochhar said.
Changing ideas about gender stereotypes and discrimination are considered “last-mile” hurdles that need to be overcome for true progress. And then some solutions can be policy-driven: A national policy that makes child care more accessible and destigmatizes caregiving — both paid and unpaid — is considered the central piece needed to push the United States past the current stalemate, as well as a national paid leave policy. It’s been 30 years since the nation passed the Family and Medical Leave Act mandating unpaid leave, viewed then as a stepping stone to passing paid leave — which still hasn’t happened.
“The U.S. has done so little that there’s just room to grow,” Edwards said.