How America has gotten worse for working mothers
Some women fear they won’t be able to strike a work-life balance, or that their positions will be compromised if they have a baby. Sometimes, those fears are proven correct.
The French Tennis Federation said this week it will not award a seed to Serena Williams at this year’s French Open. The 36-year-old Williams has won 23 Grand Slam titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world when she played in the 2017 Australian Open, which was early in her pregnancy.
However, she is now No. 453 in the world, but she’s only ranked that low because she had a baby last year, and was then bedridden for six weeks because of serious health issues related to giving birth. The French Open awards seeds to the top 32 players, based on rankings.
Being seeded is a reward for having accomplished a lot on the court over the previous months. The benefit is that seeded players don’t have to play other top players until the later rounds of the tournament.
Working mothers face serious challenges when starting a family while building their careers or, like Williams, remaining at the top of their game. Critically, opportunities shift or disappear when they’re ready to go back to work after having children, according to “Women, Work and Family,” an analysis of research distributed in August 2017 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research group. What’s more, when mothers get home from work they spend more time on housework and child care than their husbands, research shows.
A larger percentage of women work part-time compared to men — 64.2% versus 35.8%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — meaning they don’t just earn less, but they save less for retirement, according to the “Women, Work and Family” research paper by Francine Blau, an economics professor at Cornell University and Anne Winkler, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. As a result, mothers earn less than non-mothers (the “motherhood penalty”) regardless of similar workplace experience and education.
Others can play a part to help support mothers, Blau said. Aside from government policy — federal law requires mothers receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave — firms can extend or volunteer more time for parental leave, or partially pay their employees during parental leave, or create arrangements that alleviate some of the stresses mothers face, such as child care at the office or working from home. Fathers can step in, too, if they haven’t already. “The more that responsibility is shared, the better-abled the woman will be to navigate the workplace issue,” she said.
Women at the lower end of the wage scale face the highest “motherhood penalty,” compared to women with more skills, possibly because the latter can afford more flexibility in their jobs, the researchers found. In fact, mothers with one child earn 7% less than a woman without a child, and mothers with two children earn 14% less, according to a 2011 University of New Mexico study. This, of course, expands the already existing wage gap between men and women.
Here are ways the lives of working mothers are not getting any better:
Less-educated parents don’t get as much time with their children
Highly educated mothers may also get more time with their children, according to a 2016 study in the “Journal of Marriage and Family.” They spent about 123 minutes every day on child care activities (such as providing meals and putting them to bed) versus 94 minutes for less-educated mothers. A 2008 paper in the “Journal of Economic Perspectives” suggests that higher-wage, higher-educated adults can afford to take more time off to spend with their children.
Women return to work much faster than her parents’ generation
Looking at women who worked during pregnancy in the 2000s, 73% returned to work within six months versus just 21% in the 1960s, and 59% returned to work in the 2000s within three months versus 17% in the 1960s, the NBER paper found. Meanwhile, 66% of women worked during pregnancy in the 2000s versus 44% in the 1960s. Nearly two-thirds of workers don’t even take paid parental leave, primarily because they’re worried about keeping their jobs.
And in other ways, the challenges facing working mothers remain the same:
Couples still relocate more often for the husband’s career
Further compounding the issue: couples still place more emphasis on the husband’s career. Two seminal papers identified this trend in the 1970s, but a 2009 study found that family relocation decisions lead to an increase in total family earnings, but at the expense of married women’s own earnings. Wives are more likely to find themselves relocating for their husbands’ jobs, the latest working paper noted, which also comes at the expense of their careers and potential earnings.
Breastfeeding remains a taboo in many workplaces
Even when new mothers do go back to work, they may feel distress, possibly because many employers still do not have a private space for them to comfortably pump, according to the NBER paper. The researchers found a study showing mothers who breastfeed their children for six months or more had a greater loss of income for the first five years after birth than women who did not breastfeed as long, because they worked fewer hours and had to leave the workforce.
Melinda Gates, an American philanthropist and wife of Microsoft MSFT, -0.10% founder Bill Gates, recently wrote a personal essay, published on Refinery29, saying the workplace has to do more to help women in this area, and that one of the benefits of paid family leave is that women can breastfeed for as long as they may need to (a recommended six months). Until that becomes the norm, working moms will have to hope their co-workers “will be understanding and respectful when they have to carve out time from their workdays to find a private place to pump,” she wrote.
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