It’s a well-documented phenomenon that parenthood contributes to the wage gap. Studies have shown, for example, that working mothers make less than childless women — who already make less, on average, than their male coworkers.
But a recent U.S. Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies working paper, which was published in November and used more than two decades of data from national earning surveys, suggests it’s not just whether or not you have children that influences your paycheck. When you have them matters, too.
These days, married couples are increasingly similar in terms of education and earnings potential, resulting in a comparatively smaller spousal wage gap than in decades past. But for most couples, the financial disparity between husband and wife widens drastically around the birth of the couple’s first child, and continues to grow for at least the next five years, according to the paper. Couples with multiple children may experience this economic “shock” after each birth.
That’s because, despite drastic societal changes over the past few decades, women still tend to step back from their careers once childcare enters the equation, while men often continue to climb the professional ladder — resulting in higher and higher salaries for men, and stagnant or temporarily non-existent wages for women. For many couples, this uneven playing field never rights itself, even if the mother returns to work once the children enter school.
But certain women, the paper says, stand a better chance than others of bouncing back from a spousal wage gap: those who have children when they’re younger than 25, or older than 35. “This suggests that the disruption to the early career of women who have children in their late 20s and early 30s is more harmful than either having a child before the career is really started or having it later, when the woman is established in her career,” the researchers write in the paper.
Factors that influence childbearing age, such as education level, add some nuance to the equation. Young mothers, for example, tend to be less educated, and thus may earn less. And since the wage gap is less prevalent among low earners overall, these women may continue to bring home paychecks that match their husbands’.
Older mothers, on the other hand, tend to have more schooling, and may land in higher-paying fields that rival their partners’. They may also only have one child, a factor that also influences how quickly a woman can close the spousal wage gap.
Race appears to play a part, too. The researchers found a much smaller spousal wage gap among couples of color, compared to white couples. But since “race is correlated with marriage rates, income levels, and other variables that might impact the earnings gap dynamics, it is hard to interpret the race results alone,” they write.
All in all, the paper underscores the inconvenient truth that, for many women, starting a family is in direct conflict with growing a lucrative career.