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Explaining the Motherhood Wage Penalty During the Early Occupational Career


Prior research shows that mothers earn lower hourly wages than women without children, and that this maternal wage penalty cannot be fully explained by differences between mothers and other women in work experience and job characteristics. This research examines whether the residual motherhood wage penalty results from differences between mothers and other women in the accumulation of work interruptions and breaks in schooling. Using longitudinal data for 486 women followed from ages 19 to 31 in the Minnesota Youth Development Study, we find that accumulated months not in the labor force and not enrolled in school explain the residual pay gap between mothers and other women.

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  1. 1.

    For instance, Budig and England ( 2001 ) defined employment breaks as the total number of times that the respondent was out of employment for more than six weeks since her first full-time job of at least six weeks’ duration. Gangl and Ziefle ( 2009 ) measured work interruptions as the total number of months spent out of the labor force while the youngest biological child was younger than age 6.

  2. 2.

    Because the slope parameters in our two-level hierarchical models were specified as random, in supplemental analyses, we included the individual means from each time-varying covariate \( \overline {{X_i}} \) as predictors in the Level 2 slope equation to assess whether unobserved slope-effects might be biasing our findings (Halaby 2003:522–523). Introducing \( \overline {{X_i}} \) to the slope equations did not substantively change the findings that we report in this article and thus were not included in the models shown in Tables 2 and 3.

  3. 3.

    In analyses not shown, the inclusion of the number of children squared in Model 1 was not statistically significant (p > .10). We also included dummy variables to assess whether the effect of number of children on wages was nonlinear. We found that women’s wages declined by 3% for one child, by 10% for two children, and by 22% for three or more children. Consistent with recent research (Budig and England 2001:217), number of children has a monotonic and essentially linear effect on the hourly wages of women.

  4. 4.

    This finding might be due to women having a higher reservation wage (i.e., the point at which they are willing to return to the labor market) when their spouse or cohabiting partner is employed full-time compared with when they are single. We thank an anonymous reviewer for this interpretation.

  5. 5.

    In this measure of employment interruptions, we counted only breaks of four or more months to account for a possible three-month maternity leave among working mothers. Nonetheless, it is difficult to say with certainty whether working mothers had taken a paid or unpaid maternity leave.


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Grants titled “Work Experience and Mental Health: A Panel Study of Youth” from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD44138) and formerly from the National Institute of Mental Health (MH42843) funded this research. The first author is grateful for support from a Mentored Research Scientist Development Award in Population Research from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (K01 HD054467). The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the sponsors. A prior version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, March 29–31, 2007. We are grateful to Jennifer Hook, D. Wayne Osgood, and Stacy Silver for comments on a prior draft as well as to Christina Cummins for research assistance.

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Correspondence to Jeremy Staff.

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Staff, J., Mortimer, J.T. Explaining the Motherhood Wage Penalty During the Early Occupational Career. Demography 49, 1–21 (2012).

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  • Motherhood
  • Wage attainments
  • Work and family