Irvine, Calif., Oct. 3, 2014 – Are kids a career killer for women?

A new study by UC Irvine sociologists concludes that motherhood imposes a long-term professional penalty from which women in the workforce never fully recover. The career costs are less pronounced in countries that allocate more funds to child care.

“Researchers have long known that there is a wage differential for motherhood; employed women with children do not make as much money as childless women do,” said study co-author Judith Treas, a UCI professor of sociology.

“Our research finds that wages are only one of many likely costs associated with motherhood. We show that there’s also an occupational status penalty; women with children don’t get jobs with the same social standing or prestige as their childless peers, and occupational status doesn’t rebound when children grow older and require less attention.”

Treas, UCI sociology professor Matt Huffman and Anja-Kristin Abendroth of Germany’s Bielefeld University used data from 1994 to 2001 collected by the European Community Household Panel, which tracked the occupational and childbirth histories of 13,615 partnered women, ages 18-40, across 13 European countries.

The researchers looked at how motherhood affected occupational trajectories, considering not just the contemporaneous impact of a birth but the long-term consequences. They found that the arrival of a first child packed the biggest punch to a woman’s career progress, most immediately in lost work hours and job experience.

These costs were never recouped, Treas said; the occupational price of a firstborn actually increased over time. In addition, there was a penalty to having a second child, although it didn’t worsen with the passing years. A third child, if born to an older mother, was also linked to a decline in occupational status.

“The long-run penalty shown by time since birth can’t be explained by work hour adjustments and career interruptions alone,” Treas said. When she and her co-authors delved deeper into the data, they discovered that in countries with greater public spending on day care – such as Denmark and France – the birth of a first child had less severe long-range career consequences than in nations with lower expenditures – such as Portugal and Ireland.

Comparatively, the U.S. has a middling level of public spending on day care, similar to that in Germany. Research has found that the U.S.’s motherhood penalty is also in the middle, not as low as Sweden’s or as high as the Netherlands’.

“While information on a small set of countries over a short period of time can’t support sweeping policy change, our results do show that … child care initiatives enable mothers’ employment and improve their long-term career trajectories, so it’s an area that needs further analysis,” Treas said.

The findings appear in the October issue of the American Sociological Review and are available online to subscribers and UCI affiliates.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education and is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities, it’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy.

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