Motherhood Can Be Magic, But It Comes at a Cost

The so-called "child penalty" can mean mothers take a big hit in their earnings for a decade or more. Fixing it could provide benefits for generations.


Parenthood is a significant milestone in life, but its impact on labour outcomes is not evenly distributed between parents — especially mothers and fathers in hetero relationships. In Canada, women still earn less than men on average, a gap exacerbated around the age of 30 when many women have children.

Studies have continuously shown that women often bear the brunt of parenting responsibilities, leading many women to obtain part-time jobs. This in turn leads to lower wages, fewer promotions, and reduced career opportunities. Addressing this issue is crucial for achieving gender equality in the labour market.

A recent study, led by researchers in the Department of Economic Sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal, aimed to shed light on the gender disparity seen after childbirth in Canada. Dr. Marie Connolly and colleagues tracked adults aged 19 to 51 who had their first child between 1987 and 2009 using the Longitudinal and International Study of Adults. Their results were published in Canadian Public Policy.

The researchers examined annual earnings and employment, considering factors such as marital status, number of children, and education level. The study followed individuals for 15 years surrounding the birth of their first child, observing changes from five years before to 10 years after the birth.

The study results revealed stark differences in earnings trajectories between men and women before and after the birth of their first child. While men’s earnings remained relatively stable, women experienced a significant drop of 49% in earnings following childbirth. This impact was more pronounced for mothers with multiple children or lower levels of education. Interestingly, mothers in common-law partnerships showed smaller negative effects on employment and earnings compared to married mothers.

These findings underscore the disproportionate impact of parenthood on women’s earnings in Canada. Even 10 years after the birth of their first child, women continued to earn less than they did before becoming mothers, with an average penalty of 34% compared to fathers.

This long-term effect highlights the need for inclusive family policies that support working parents, such as extended parental leaves and affordable daycare services. Encouraging maternal employment could also challenge traditional gender roles within families and promote greater gender equality in both the household and the labour market.

For instance, research suggests that maternal employment has intergenerational benefits. Girls were demonstrated to be more likely to pursue higher-paying jobs and hold leadership positions when their mothers were in the workforce. In addition, boys with mothers who were employed were more involved in family and domestic responsibilities than boys whose mothers were not in the labour market.

This highlights the importance of promoting women’s participation in the labour market not only for economic equity, but also for fostering gender equality across generations.

In conclusion, it is clear that countering this “child penalty” requires a multifaceted approach that combines policy interventions, workplace reforms, and cultural shifts. By acknowledging and addressing the unequal burden of parenthood on women, society can advance toward a fairer and more inclusive labour market for everyone.

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Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.