How the 'Mommy Penalty' Affects Your Paycheck

  • By Jillian Berman, MarketWatch
  • September 16, 2015

In more than two dozen fields, women actually out-earn their male colleagues when they first leave college, but that advantage completely disappears by the time they reach their mid-30s.

In 29 fields ranging from chemical engineering to philosophy, women between the ages of 22 and 27 make slightly more on average than men with the same majors who entering similar fields, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York analysis of census data. But women between the ages of 35 and 45 who are working those same jobs actually make less than their male colleagues, the study found.

The chart above shows how the gap between men and women’s earnings increases over time in many fields. The pink bars indicate that women are earning more than men shortly after they graduate school and the blue bars show how men out-earn women by the time they reach the middle of their career.

The NYFed’s findings, which controlled for major and career choice, add to the growing body of evidence that women face unconscious bias as they climb the career ladder, widening the pay gap. That plays out in a variety of ways. Higher ups may be less likely to tap women for promotions because they don’t fit the stereotype of the traditional leader. Women may also struggle to find senior leaders — who are still largely male in Corporate America — willing to mentor them or recommend them for top jobs.

“It’s not women's choices,” said Anna Beninger, the director of research at Catalyst, an organization dedicated to women's workplace advancement, “fundamentally what we’ve come to find over time is it really comes down to an issue of access to opportunities.”

The so-called mommy penalty also plays a role. In this scenario, women lose out on potential raises and promotions either because they take time off or reduce their hours to raise kids.

“The unequal division of household labor and caregiving responsibilities often can lead to women cutting back on her own work investment,” said Barbara Gault, the vice president and executive director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank. “We need systemic changes so that women and men can continue to advance even if they go to reduced schedules due to caregiving.”

Some companies are beginning to move in that direction. Netflix announced Tuesday that parents could take unlimited leave during the first year of their child’s birth or adoption. Some lawfirms are also tweaking their partner tracks to allow high performers who work fewer hours to still have a shot at top-level jobs, according to Gault.

But even women who don’t have kids or remain as committed to their careers as before they had children suffer from bias, said Beninger. Catalyst’s research found that companies are less likely to offer women international assignments, which are often critical to career advancement, even when they’re just as willing to take them on as their male colleagues.

That lack of access to opportunity translates into big bucks over time; women M.B.A.S at top schools earn $4,600 less than their male colleagues in their first jobs, a gap that grows to $31,258 a year a few years into their careers, according to a 2011 analysis from Catalyst.

“As women approach typical childbearing age any discrimination based on the potential for motherhood or real motherhood would become more salient,” Gault said.

This article originally appeared on and is reprinted by permission from, ©2015 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

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