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What Hurts Working Women Most, Going Childless or Having Kids?

December 4, 2015, 6:32 PM UTC
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Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

When Holly Brockwell, editor of the UK women’s technology and lifestyle site Gadgette, wrote about her decision to get sterilized and not have children for the BBC, reaction started pouring in just a half hour after the article posted in late November. “The emails alone have got to be in the hundreds,” Brockwell told Fortune—and that was only three days after the piece went live. “Tweets, it has to be thousands. It’s been non-stop.”

Many were positive, but the negative ones more than made up for the kudos. “The nasty ones are, ‘You’re the worst person in the world, I hate you,’ and they stick with you,” Brockwell said. Some—like the man who found her phone number and insisted he could talk her into wanting kids—were downright creepy. It got so bad that she deactivated her Twitter account.

The Motherhood Paradox

We read a lot about how women with children struggle to balance the demands of their careers with caring for their families. And it’s undeniable that choosing to have kids can hurt women’s chances for advancement and lower their earning potential. Indeed, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, “having a child costs the average high skilled woman $230,000 in lost lifetime wages relative to similar women who never gave birth.”

Yet, as Brockwell so plainly demonstrates, our society remains suspicious of childless women—and especially those who make the conscious decision not to have kids. Those prejudices, too, can hurt women in the workplace.

Going Childless Can Mean Extra Work—Or Even Abuse…

When women opt not to have kids, employers often have less respect for their non-work responsibilities and may even expect them to pick up some of the slack for their parent co-workers, writes Laura Carroll, author of Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice.

In some cases, this can even tip over into abuse: A 2013 study of middle class workers showed that “[w]omen without children experience more [workplace] harassment and mistreatment than mothers, and mothers who spend less time on caregiving experience more harassment and mistreatment than mothers who spend more time on caregiving.” The harassment and mistreatment reported by survey participants included a wide range of activities, such as ignoring, withholding important information, trying to turn others in the office against a person, hostile treatment, and attempts to bribe or coerce.

“The amount of prejudice against women not having children I don’t think has moved very much” since the early 1990s when she wrote the book Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children, said psychotherapist Jeanne Safer. “There are stereotypes about the ball buster and the cold woman and the woman who’s like a man and the woman with a bad childhood. Sometimes women who don’t have children and are working at high level jobs are expected to take up the slack for women who have kids, which looks okay on the surface but it’s not. Maybe I have elderly parents or I like to live my life.”

The phenomenon of women remaining childless is something people are just starting to acknowledge and examine. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, 15% of women aged 40 to 44 did not have children. That was down from a high of 20% in 2006 but similar to the rate in 1994.

“In terms of whether there are negatives for women, I can only think of [anecdotal evidence],” said Institute for Women’s Policy Research VP and executive director Barbara Gault. “I haven’t seen any research showing that there are negatives, but [even] if women are choosing not to have children even though they would like to because they fear they need to prioritize their career or because they can’t balance a family and career successfully, they’re missing out on that experience.”

…While Having Kids Will Shrink Your Paycheck.

While childless women may find themselves with too much work, moms often face the opposite problem. “Women with children are a little less likely to be hired,” said Kevin Miller, a senior research with the American Association of University Women. “When they’re offered a salary, they’re often offered somewhat smaller amounts.”

“There’s about a 5% reduction in pay for each child a woman has,” Gault said. “It works in the other direction for men, around 4 or 5% [additional for each child].” In other words, there is effectively a business-enabled wealth transfer from mothers to fathers.

In some fields, professional success can mean giving up on having children. For example, “women [in academia] who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high price,” wrote Mary Ann Mason, a professor of the graduate school and senior fellow of the Earl Warren Institute for Law and Social Policy at the University of California. “They are far less likely to be married with children. Among tenured faculty 70% of men are married with children compared with 44% of the women.” According to Mason, tenure for academics typically comes between the ages of 30 and 40 and women often feel that they have to put off children until after achieving the status.

A No-Win at Work?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Americans seem to be confused about the best way for women to approach work and family decisions. The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Women and Leadership study asked respondents when women with leadership aspirations should have children. While 36% of people said it should happen early in her career, 40% said later in the career, and 22% said that the best choice would be not to have children. “Both men and women were about equally likely to say that,” said Juliana Horowitz, an associate director for research at Pew.

It seems fair to say that working women weighing whether to have kids face an enormous catch-22. “If you have no children you get shouted out,” Brockwell said. “If you have only one kid you get yelled at because the child is lonely. I thought everyone would be onboard for me not to want kids and not to get pregnant in the first place. I’m trying to be responsible and would have thought people would be on my side for that, but apparently not.”

As an old engineering joke about the inevitability of some physical laws would have it, women can’t win, they can’t break even, and they can’t get out of the game.