The $500,000 penalty for working moms: New study shows how much having a child can cost women over their careers

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If you haven’t heard, having children is expensive. As well as the eye-watering price of equipment for your new bundle of joy (strollers alone can cost around $1,000), you have to factor in the time off work to have the baby—and then, women also need to consider the $17,000 they will miss out on annually after becoming a mother.

That’s at least according to a new Bankrate analysis of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS).

The data reveals that in 2023, full-time working mothers with children under 18 earned $55,276 annually, while fathers earned $72,280—essentially 31% less than their male counterparts.

This discrepancy translates to $1,400 less in mothers’ pockets each month, $17,000 less a year and around a $500,000 loss over the course of a 30-year career. 

But of course, the average age of a first time mother is just a little older than 27 in the U.S. and nearly 31 years old in the U.K.—meaning that with the current average retirement age of 62 and 65 respectively, most working moms will be working for at least five more years than the study suggests and accruing an even bigger loss.

Meanwhile fathers see their salaries increase

Separate research highlights that the “motherhood penalty” trap is virtually unavoidable. 

Douglas Almond, Yi Cheng, and Cecilia Machado examined more than 800,000 earnings reports and found that women experience a 51% dock in pay after giving birth. 

It didn’t matter if the mother worked for a woman or at a mostly woman-dominant firm. It also didn’t matter the size of the company the mother worked for. Or if she went to college. And it didn’t matter if the mother also happened to be the breadwinner in the family.

“What’s striking about the U.S. motherhood penalty is how universal it seems,” Almond told Fortune. “Even when the female partner outearns her male partner and we might expect the lower-paid dad to ‘step up’ at home, we find a still larger motherhood penalty: around 60% of earnings.”

Not only are high-earning mothers still penalized more than lower-earning fathers, but as Bankrate’s analysis highlights, men don’t experience a “fatherhood penalty” at all. 

Instead, after having children, men experience a significant boost in their salary.

In fact, full-time working fathers with children under 18 earned about 23% more than full-time working men without children, with median wages of $72,280 compared to $58,864, respectively.

Assuming earnings stay the same, fathers can expect to earn $400,000 more than childless men over the course of a 30-year career. 

The ‘mommy track’

The research highlights that it’s when a woman marries that cracks really begin to appear in her earning potential.

Full-time working single women with no children under 18 earn 93 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts—the smallest pay gap among the groups analyzed. However, after marriage women without children earn 79 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earned in 2023.

Of course, not all women who marry have kids: Some are increasingly happy with a DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle or are childless not by choice. But, as Fortune found, just taking your spouse’s surname is enough to signal to your boss that you may want to start a family.

Despite working mothers being more visible than ever before, “outdated and toxic attitudes” around motherhood are still very much alive among managers.

Just insinuating you may one day have children is enough to be consigned to the “mommy track”.

Lauren Tetenbaum, a lawyer-turned-social worker, told Fortune that women are “afraid” to even inquire about a company’s parental leave policy: “It’s this unspoken secret that if they ask about it, even if they’re seeking information, they’ll be discriminated against.”

Unfortunately, this only gets worse when women do become pregnant; An ex-Peloton director told Fortune that disclosing her pregnancy killed her job prospects and a marketer echoed that she was compared to a broken race car as her pregnancy progressed.  

Plus, even when the baby bump disappears, research shows that outdated stereotypes continue to follow women well into motherhood and have a tangible impact on their long-term trajectory at work.

Douglas Almond, Yi Cheng, and Cecilia Machado found that six years after the first child’s birth, the pay gap between father and mother had actually increased. Meanwhile, Princeton University and the London School of Economics collected data from 134 countries and concluded that the Motherhood Penalty can still impact women’s careers 10 years after giving birth.

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