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The mommy track is the diminishing opportunities of women in the workforce upon becoming mothers. References to the mommy track often go along with "opting out" of the workforce by leaving it permanently. The mommy track has primarily been observed within the United States, but has also been observed in other developed countries.
Origins of mommy track
Felice Schwartz’s 1989 article in the Harvard Business Journal is called the first discussion of the mommy track phenomenon. Schwartz claims in the article that while “the cost of employing women in management is greater than the cost of employing men,” this greater cost is due primarily to gendered expectations of the workplace and women’s duties in raising children. Schwartz wrote:
The misleading metaphor of the glass ceiling suggests an invisible barrier constructed by corporate leaders to impede the upward mobility of women beyond the middle levels. A more appropriate metaphor, I believe, is the kind of cross-sectional diagram used in geology. The barriers to women’s leadership occur when potentially counterproductive layers of influence on women—maternity, tradition, socialization—meet management strata pervaded by the largely unconscious preconceptions, stereotypes, and expectations of men. Such interfaces do not exist for men and tend to be impermeable for women.
Schwartz's assertions generated widespread publicity and a new conversation about women in the workplace. The New York Times was the publication to actually coin the term Mommy track in a March 8, 1989 article, "Mommy Career Track Sets Off Furor" which discussed Schwartz's article and the response to it in the public sphere. The article described the mommy track as a phenomenon "in which women with family responsibilities are shunted into dead-end, lower-paying jobs."
Wage gap for mothers
Across different pay levels and socioeconomic groups, women’s earnings tend to plateau after giving birth. Even when controlling for variables, on average mothers in all groups earn lower wages than non-mothers. Beyond this general drop in earnings, though, there are significant differences in mothers’ wage gaps between high-earning women and low-earning women.
High-earning women appear to bear much higher costs of childbirth than low-earning women. Choosing to have children will force a woman to give up 21 to 33 percent of her lifetime earnings, a loss that could cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ten years after having children, a highly skilled woman with children remains at a pay level 24% lower than non-mothers even when time out of the workforce is taken into account. This group of women also seems to face greater discrimination within the workplace; only 16% of all law firm partners are women, a discrepancy absent from lower-skilled professions. Higher-skilled women tend to have flatter wage-earning trajectories than their low-skilled counterparts after giving birth, primarily seen in a lack of wage growth.
Low-earning women who have children are sacrificing about 10 to 14 percent of their total lifetime earnings. Even ten years after having children, a mother in this income bracket earns wages that are about 12% lower than non-mother, low-skilled women. This group of mothers tends to experience a one-time fall in pay immediately after childbirth of about 6%, but after that initial fall the wage gap between women with children and does not continue to grow over time.
Part-time work and flexibility
A theory frequently cited for why mothers earning lower wages than other women that is the fact that mothers tend to spend fewer hours in the workplace than non-mothers. Part-time work and flextime or more flexible arrangements are seen as hallmarks of the mommy track, since they point to women not being in the workplace full-time. However, this is changing as more people—men and women alike—choose more flexible work arrangements that allow for more free time.
Cultural pressures and influences
In the years since the women’s liberation movement and second-wave feminism, gender roles have become more complicated and less dogmatic. Despite this, the modern ideal of “intensive parenting,” first described by Sharon Hays, ensures that mothers continue to take primary responsibility for raising children due to the engrained social norm that women are better nurturers. This is one of the reasons that while both men and women report having increased trouble with their work-life balance after having a baby, women are the only ones whose hours working decrease as a response to this conflict. Moreover, women who cannot afford to pay someone else to take care of domestic work are faced with the double burden of working outside of the home while continuing to complete the majority of domestic work in the home.
Another cultural influence on mothers' decreased presence in the workforce is gender discrimination within the U.S. tax code. Since domestic labor in one’s own home is unpaid and untaxed, and women continue to do a majority of domestic labor as a result of societal norms, in many households it may seem less expensive for a woman to take care of this labor than to go to work and pay someone else to cook, clean, and care for children. The tax code also sees men as the primary earners and women as secondary earners, so men benefit from joint filing while women’s earnings are frequently subject to higher taxation.
There has been widespread opposition to the concept of the mommy track from many different sectors of society.
One opposing point of view focuses on the fact that worldwide, women choose to work fewer hours than do men. This viewpoint generally asserts that the mommy track is not part of any sort of societal discrimination against women, but comes as an effect of mothers choosing to spend more time away from work.
Many feminists saw the idea of the mommy track as divisive to women and therefore one that could have a detrimental effect to the feminist cause. Since Schwartz’s initial article proposed sorting women into two categories based on their devotion to careers, some saw this as a division between women that both forced them into narrow categories and ignored any existing differences between men.
Mommy track outside the U.S.
While the mommy track is a concept that has been discussed primarily in the United States, mothers have vastly different work situations than non-mothers in most other countries as well. Other industrialized countries have begun to examine this phenomenon in recent years.
Japan’s social norms, like those of the U.S., help to cause many women to move into part-time work upon having children. However, unlike the U.S., Japanese mothers rarely return to full-time work after having children. Even more so than other developed countries, Japan has an especially high proportion of women who work part-time, and a majority of those women are mothers. Common business practices in Japan further penalize mothers who may have taken leave from the workplace at some point, due to companies choosing to only recruit directly from universities and setting upper limits on age for full-time positions.
As in the United States, the effects of marriage and children have far greater effects on women than on men, partly due to the expectation that women will continue unpaid domestic labor. However, the Nordic countries have worked to make the dual-earner household the norm, with nationalized childcare, parental leave, and flexible working hours making it possible for women to continue to work. In Sweden, for example, parents are given 12 months of parental leave time that can be divided between the two as each couple sees best. Despite this, gender norms continue to have an effect: mandated maternity leave combined with Sweden allowing women to reduce work hours after giving birth means that nearly half of mothers in dual-income families work less than full-time.
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- Angie Kim (31 March 2010). "The 'Mommy Track' turns 21". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 9 Feb 2012.
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- Kornberg, Jessica C. "Jumping On the Mommy Track: A Tax for Working Mothers." UCLA Women's Law Journal. 17.187: 2008
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- Schwartz, Felice N. "Management Women and the New Facts of Life." Harvard Business Journal, January–February 1989
- Wilde, Elizabeth Y. et al. "The Mommy Track Divides: The Impact of Childbearing on Wages of Women of Different Skill Levels." National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers (2010)
- Yu, Wei-hsin. "Jobs for Mothers: Married Women's Labor Force Reentry and Part-Time, Temporary Employment in Japan." Sociological Forum. Springer 17.3 (Sept., 2002)