Wealthy white American women are especially likely to suffer career setbacks after maternity leave

The Office
The Office

The US has drawn comparisons to much poorer nations for its terrible record on paid maternity leave and affordable childcare, which often result in harsh circumstances for its working mothers.

The fact that it is the only country in the world that does not mandate any amount of paid leave for new parents, combined with the rising cost of childcare, often means mothers are forced to leave the workforce and stay home for at least five years, or until their child can enroll in public school. This has long-term impacts on the income and wealth of parents. In fact, the biggest cost of raising children is the income lost when parents stay home to look after the kids.

The impact of these policies was thought to be harshest on low-income parents, but a new study finds that highly paid, extremely skilled white women in the US lose more financially, in total and proportionate terms, by taking time off to raise children.

The study, published Dec. 1 in American Sociological Review, found that highly paid and highly skilled white women lost an average of 10% in their wage per kid after taking time off to raise children, while low-income and less skilled white women lost between 4% and 7% of their wage per child.

The trend wasn’t the same for women of all ethnicities. Overall, black women paid a lower monetary penalty—3% to 4%—than white women, and the penalties for black women did not vary considerably by skill level or income. The study didn’t offer an explanation for these racial differences in penalties.

Mothers who stay home to raise their children not only sacrifice the earnings they forego when they miss work, but their income years later reflects lost raises. The findings suggest that this particularly privileged group loses more because—not despite—of having more experience. Because their wages grow at the fastest rate, even a small period of time away from work means that they lose out on a large amount of salary growth. So even though this group often takes the least time off work, presumably because they can afford childcare, it costs them the most.

“Women that have less skill and are in lower paid jobs, because they are not increasing their pay every year anyhow, when they take out some time it doesn’t hurt them as much” in growth and total earnings lost, says Paula England, a professor of sociology at New York University, and the lead author of the study.

Something employers can do to counter this effect, says England, is to create a company culture that doesn’t penalize mothers for taking time off, and make some amount of leave available to both mothers and fathers. “That might even the playing field between mothers and non-mothers somewhat, and possibly even between men and women,” England says.

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