The XX Factor

Does the Labor Market Punish Mothers or All Women?

David Leonhardt makes the point that the U.S. labor market is “punishing” to mothers in a column this week. He begins by noting that seeing yet another childless woman receive a nomination the Supreme Court is an insight into the reality that women at the top have not seemed to have figured out how to have it all. This is an enormously important issue and one we took head on in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything . Women are earning more post-secondary degrees than men, but still they are not rising up to the top in the numbers they should be.

I want to dig into a few points that Mr. Leonhardt makes that aren’t actually entirely supported by the facts. When talking about women and work, and especially motherhood and work, there are a few economic myths that crop up far too often. Mr. Leonhardt says:

Taking the next step toward workplace equality probably has to start with an acknowledgment that most parents can’t have it all - at least as long as part-time work, flexible schedules and long leaves do so much career damage .

In the aggregate, part-time work, flexibility schedules, and long leaves are simply unavailable to most workers. The evidence is actually that those with the most access to workplace flexibility tend to be more highly paid workers and nonparents, rather than the other way around. For the most part, relatively few workers-about one-quarter -have access to workplace flexibility.

Part-time work is associated with lower pay. In our economy, there are actually only a relatively small number of jobs that typically have part-time hours and those jobs tend to be low-paid. Most “good jobs” do come in a part-time version, which is the problem. So, for example, retail work is often part-time, but professional jobs rarely are. Interestingly, men actually pay a higher penalty than women for working part-time.

Long leaves are also associated with lower pay, but that is not necessarily the case with shorter leaves, such as those allowed by the Family and Medical Leave Act. One difference can be traced to whether leaves for maternity offer pay or not: If the employer offers paid leave, women are more likely to return to work and this has a positive effect on their long-term pay.

Mr. Leonhardt goes on to say:

A growing number of parents already seem to have come to this conclusion. That’s one reason for the rise in the number of mothers who have dropped out of the labor force. Lacking good part-time job options, more are choosing full-time parenting.

Last year, 40.2 percent of married women with children under 3 years old were outside the labor force, up from a low of 38.6 percent in 1998. The increase, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis , “occurred across all educational levels and, for most groups, by about the same magnitude.” By contrast, women without children at home have continued to join the work force in growing numbers .

Mr. Leonhardt has written before that the opt-out hype wasn’t hype, so the fact that he continues to tell this tall tale isn’t surprising.  The reality is that, yes, mothers reduced their employment over the 2000s, but other women did, too, which means the drop might have nothing to do with motherhood. This lingering opt-out story stems from a basic confusion: If everyone’s labor supply has fallen, the cause cannot be pinned on the fact that motherhood is leading to an “opt out” because it begs the question: How do you explain the trend for the rest of the population? That’s like looking at room full of people in red and blue T-shirts eating ice cream and saying, “People in blue shirts like ice cream!” It’s a true statement, but it’s also not explanatory.

Mr. Leonhardt points to a nice BLS report that showed lower labor-force participation among mothers. What he didn’t tell the reader was that this analysis included only mothers. There’s no way to know whether lower labor supply is about mothers opting out or a more general opting out. This story emerged as we were coming out of the 2000s “job-loss” recession. Clearly, something was leading lots of workers to “opt out” (setting aside the ridiculousness of calling nonwork optional in the face of paltry job creation).

There is now a large body of literature on this topic. (Readers can start here .) My research on this issue (which was also featured in Mr. Leonhardt’s paper here and here ) found that the effect of having children at home-i.e., the supposed root cause of the lower labor supply of mothers-did not change statistically significantly over the 2000s. In fact, recent declines in women’s employment may be more an effect of the weak labor market for all women, mothers and nonmothers, rather than an increase in mothers voluntarily choosing to exit employment.

Which gets me to my main point: When women lose jobs, we call it “optional”; when men lose jobs, we call it a recession. But the reality is that the vast majority of women work outside the home. (Women actually became half of all workers on U.S. payrolls in October 2009.) Their families rely on their earnings as never before (mothers are the primary breadwinner in four in 10 families with children and a “co-breadwinner” bringing home at least one-quarter of their family’s earnings in another one-quarter of families), and this reliance on the earnings of mothers has only grown throughout this recession as men have lost more jobs.