earnings for women decline after childbirth

Progress in closing the gender pay gap has done little to cushion the financial impact felt by women after childbirth, says a new publication from Cornell University.

According to its study, after couples in the United States have their first child, a mother’s earnings drop significantly compared to those of a father’s—a disparity that has persisted across three decades, from the 1980s to the 2000s. Researchers concluded this from reviewing surveys of over 21,000 couples, along with their wage data (documented in tax records), for two years before and 10 years after they became parents.

In the 1980s, they found, the percentage of a household’s income that was earned by wives fell by 13% (and the share earned by husbands presumably rose by 13%) following parenthood. Back then, there was a brief period when women strode toward financial independence—but progress since then has slowed to a crawl. By the 2000s, women’s share of their household income still fell 10% following childbirth.

“The gender revolution has stalled, and women remain economically vulnerable,” Kelly Musick, a professor at Cornell’s school of public policy and a lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Across groups, wives become more financially dependent on their husbands after parenthood.”

That’s especially worrisome as a sizable percentage of marriages end in divorce, and public support for single mothers is scant—for example, the U.S. differs from fellow wealthy nations in not federally mandating paid leave for workers after childbirth, or offering subsidized childcare for working families. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic has only worsened prospects for mothers hoping to rejoin the workforce.

Notably, the crippling of mothers’ earning power held true across all income brackets and education levels—which was surprising, Musick notes, as women with more degrees and greater socioeconomic status have made leaps toward gender equality in other aspects of life.

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