The U.S. “Motherhood Penalty” Isn’t Getting Any Better

The motherhood penalty refers to the economic disadvantage of becoming a mother in the United States. For example, research has repeatedly shown that mothers earn less money than women without children.

A new report analyzing three time periods going back to 1986 found that the motherhood penalty remains quite stable over time, and may even have worsened for mothers with one child. This finding echoes a previous report that indicated that controlling for differences in demographic characteristics, education, and experience, the motherhood penalty in the U.S. was statistically unchanged between 1975- 85 and 1986-98.

From the report:

“There are a number of reasons to think that the motherhood penalty in the U.S. may have persisted beyond the late 1990s. This country has not committed to expanding work-family policies to anywhere near the extent of most other wealthy countries (Gornick and Meyers 2005). For example, there is no federal commitment to paid parental leave, and limited commitment to publicly funded preschool relative to other wealthy countries. This may mean that U.S. mothers may find it more difficult to balance work and care, which could harm their experience, productivity, and subsequent wages. In addition, progress towards gender equality seems to have stalled in the late 1990s.”

Discrimination against working mothers compounds the effect of inadequate policymaking: Research had found that mothers are offered salaries 7.9% less than women without children, and are called back after initial interviews half as often as women without children.

Meanwhile, men with a child are more likely to be hired than childless men, and tend to be paid more than men without children.

We need corrective policies to reduce the motherhood penalty for American working women.

Two of these policies should be an easy lift: a law to better protect pregnant women in the workplace, and legislation to close gaps in the state equal pay law:

The Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PPWFA/HB1583)

In most of Pennsylvania, a pregnant worker can be fired for requesting an extra glass of water. The majority of Pennsylvania’s neighbors, including New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia, have passed laws to protect pregnant workers who need reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Currently, some workers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have more rights than workers living elsewhere in Pennsylvania, because Philadelphia’s Fair Practice Ordinance requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees, and Pittsburgh’s law requires reasonable accommodations for employees who work for the city or through city contracts. State lawmakers have abandoned the rest of Pennsylvania’s working families.

Status: Advocates have been calling to protect pregnant Pennsylvania workers for years. The PPWFA was re-introduced in the current legislative session last June, and referred to the Labor & Industry Committee, where it has stalled, despite 2015 public hearings that established the need for such protections.

View or download a fact sheet on the PPWFA here.

Fixing the state Equal Pay Act (HB1243)

Pennsylvania adopted the Equal Pay Act in 1959. The current law has not been updated since 1967, when it was amended to reduce the number of Pennsylvanians to whom it applied. Pay discrimination is difficult to detect while it is happening, and difficult to legally prove once detected. The Pennsylvania Equal Pay Act must be strengthened to address these obstacles to equal pay.

Status: Advocates have been calling to fix Pennsylvania’s equal pay law for years. HB1243 was introduced in April, and referred to the Labor & Industry Committee, where it has stalled, despite public hearings that established the need for such protections.

View or download a fact sheet on fixing Pennsylvania’s equal pay law here.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

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About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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