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Release: June 28, 2001

(Editors note: The results of this study as well as interviews with three working mothers who were participants are documented in a 26-minute educational video titled "The Family Friendly Workplace." Call 319-384-0011 to request a copy.)

UI study documents 'economic penalty for motherhood'

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- More than 26-million mothers in the American workforce do not earn as much as equally qualified and experienced men or women without children. An eight-year University of Iowa study of 300 working women with children in the Midwest explains why the gender wage gap seems to be concentrated on mothers. The study shows that mothers who avail themselves of family friendly policies at work experience lower wage growth over time and that those who work fewer than 30 hours a week experience the most serious wage penalties over time.

Jennifer Glass, a UI sociology professor and lead investigator for this study, said the results demonstrate that "for most employed women there is an economic penalty for motherhood."

The study, which was a collaboration between Glass and Sarah Beth Estes of the University of Cincinnati, tracked women who were employed at the time they became pregnant, documenting their career progression over eight years. About 65 percent of the group worked continuously throughout the study, only taking time off immediately following the birth of their child. Another 20 percent took more time off or quit their jobs but went back to work or got a new job within the study's timeframe. Fewer than 15 percent left the workforce entirely.

The women in the study who used such family friendly policies as flexible scheduling, telecommuting and part-time employment did not receive pay increases in proportion to the raises of their peers who avoided these policies. Glass emphasized that the study compared wages on a per-hour basis, meaning that the overall salary differences could not be attributed to the number of hours worked.

"A woman may be working more than 40 hours a week, but if some of that work is done at home or in the evening, there is a perception that she isn't working as hard as her colleague who is in the office during the regularly scheduled work day," Glass said.

Those who have the most "face time" in the office, especially those who are seen working overtime, are rewarded with larger raises over time than those who complete some of their work outside traditional working hours, she said.

In that respect, employers who offer the so-called benefit of flexible scheduling are at the same time punishing workers who take advantage of those policies. "This is especially true for managers and professional workers in the highest skill jobs," Glass said.

"What I think might be going on," she continued, "is that when you ask for or you use flexible scheduling repeatedly for family obligations, you might be drawing attention in some ways to the fact that you have family obligations that are important to you. Perhaps subliminally this is a signal, whether conscious or unconscious, that employers use to determine whether someone is really committed, whether someone is really valuable."

Korilyn Hauersperger, one of the women in the study, said she met some hostility at work when she asked to change her work hours after her fourth child was born. "That's pretty much how I was treated is that, you know, if you want to go part-time, you obviously don't care as much about your job as these other people," she said. "You know, if you don't want to be here, then you're not a good pharmacist anymore."

Despite the economic drawbacks, women who work for companies offering family responsive policies are often better off in other ways than those whose employers do not offer any flexibility, Glass said. "Having a supportive supervisor makes women better workers and better parents and actually improves mothers' mental health," she said. "Without any family friendly policies, we find that family life is more difficult and children's well-being suffers."

Cynthia Bailey, another mother in the study, has resorted to using vacation time to attend school functions for her two children because the bank where she works as a teller does not offer flexible scheduling. "It was a Mother's Day thing I took off for at the bank and I was so glad that I took off," she said. "I'm thinking, I didn't do a Mother's Day thing for the older one, how must he have felt when all these mothers are there and I'm not there."

The study also found that employed mothers went to great lengths to make up for hours away from their children, often sacrificing such basic needs as sleep to spend all of their non-work time focused on their children -- a phenomenon sociologists refer to as "stealing from themselves." Several mothers in the study, including Bailey, described staying up until midnight or later to take care of household chores after the children were in bed so as not to "waste" time with the children on such things as house cleaning or laundry.

This study was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation.