Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

The motherhood penalty: Balancing work and family obligations

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Evaluating Family and Medical Leave Insurance for Washington State

As women’s participation in the workforce has increased, families have become more dependent on women’s earnings – particularly since the Great Recession left significantly more men without jobs. Yet, women continue to take home less than their male counterparts across industries, age ranges and education levels. According to research by the Center for American Progress, a typical Washington woman earns $524,000 less than her male counterpart over a 40-year career.

Although a number of factors contribute to the earnings gap, many women experience what is known as the “motherhood penalty” – women with children have more difficulty getting hired and are more likely to be offered lower pay than other women and men with equivalent qualifications.

Notably, disparities in pay begin to increase as women reach child-bearing age. As they move into sandwich years, when they are caring for children and elders at the same time, the earnings gap continues to widen because women are less likely to receive promotions and accompanying pay raises.

average monthly earnings by sex

Childbirth and family care

For women working full-time, paid sick and vacation leave have become more available for situations when a few days of leave is needed. However, sick and vacation leave are usually short-term and insufficient for serious health or family issues.


Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than half of first-time mothers used some form of paid leave after the birth of their first child between 2006 and 2008. More than a third of these women used a combination of leave, including paid vacation and sick days to spend time recovering from childbirth and caring for their newborns. Further, data show that while fewer women are quitting their jobs to care for newborns, more women are taking unpaid leave after giving birth and slightly more are being let go from their jobs.

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