Motherhood hits women’s earnings for a decade

A University of Queensland study has shown having a baby negatively affects a mother’s employment earnings for up to 10 years.

Researchers from UQ’s Life Course Centre used data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey to investigate the impact of parenthood on earnings across a period spanning 10 years prior to and 10 years after the birth of a child.

Lead author and Master of Philosophy student Ruth Steinbring said that while previous research found an immediate ’motherhood penalty’ on women’s earnings, this study was one of the first to examine the long-term trajectory of household earnings through the transition into parenthood.

"We know that parenthood is a key contributor to loss of earnings for women, but we did not know whether or at what point women started to regain their lost earnings," Ms Steinbring said.

"While there is an expectation over the long term that couples will gradually return to pre-parenthood earnings arrangements, our study results do not support this.

"Parenthood affects men and women differently and the gender gap in earnings is still evident up to 10 years after the first birth."

The study shows the share of households with male breadwinners rises sharply post-parenthood and has still not returned to pre-parenthood levels 10 years on.

It also shows a large decrease in the number of equal-earner households. However there is less fluctuation in the number of female-breadwinner households from preto post-parenthood.

Ms Steinbring said it made economic sense for the person who earned more to continue working.

"Our study confirms that parenthood entrenches the male-breadwinner model, but it also shows that there are some couples who make it work with a female breadwinner and we can learn from those households," Ms Steinbring said.

"Current policy mainly focusses on supporting women after the birth of a child, but our research suggests that improving women’s earnings prior to giving birth can also help improve equality."

Co-author and Life Course Centre Director Professor Janeen Baxter said the study provides valuable new insights into the role of parenthood in gender inequality over a lifetime.

Professor Baxter said the findings suggest structural, economic and cultural pressures to conform to a male-breadwinner model, and unequal sharing of household and childcaring responsibilities, continued to be a strong influence on post-parenthood earnings.

"This study highlights the need for policymakers to also consider the years prior to parenthood as a key period where targeted supports can foster greater long-term gender equality," Professor Baxter said.

This study is published in The Australian Journal of Social Issues .