Career-minded women pay steep price for having kids

At the end of May, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg caught my attention with the commencement address she gave to Barnard College grads. Women, she noted, make up 50 percent of college graduates in the country, but they do not hold 50 percent of the nation's top jobs. This she blamed on the elusive search for work-life balance.

"Men make far fewer compromises than women to balance professional success and personal fulfillment," she said, adding that a woman's search for balance only weakens her career.

In thinking about that balance — as in "I might want to have kids someday, so I should pick a specialty in med school now that'll make that possible" — women make small decisions that add up to make their careers less challenging and easier to leave down the road.

Sandberg's recommendation to the graduating class: "Do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision."



The message resonated with me. It was like Sandberg was watching me as a newlywed — three years away from even thinking about kids and four years away from having them — decide to become a writer, not an editor, because I'd been told writers could work from home and editors could count on late nights in the office.


Since then, I've watched countless friends and colleagues with incredible career potential make the decision to slow down or stop working when they have kids — then sometimes have a difficult time getting back on track.


I want to be clear about the fact that I'm not judging here. I have two children of my own and two stepchildren (one of whom was in that Barnard crowd), and I have the utmost respect for moms who stay home to raise their kids. They do a job that is, in many ways, much tougher than mine. Still, new research piled atop Sandberg's message shows that opting out or slowing down can have a huge impact, not just when it comes to reaching your career potential, but when it comes to reaching your financial potential as well.


According to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, highly skilled women lose anywhere from $230,000 to $359,000 in lifetime wages by having children.



In "The Mommy Track Divides: The Impact of Childbearing on Wages of Women of Differing Skill Levels," co-authors Elizabeth Ty Wilde, Lily Batchelder and David Ellwood tracked women and their salaries before and after childbirth and divided them according to skill.


Women who are "lower skilled" lost about $49,000 in lifetime wages, but highly skilled women — those who might step off the proverbial "fast track" to have children — lost more than four times as much.


So what's going on here?


Lead author Wilde cautions that the study is a "thought exercise," and should by no means be taken as an indication that, if you're 28 years old and on that "fast track" and decide to start a family, you're automatically doomed to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings.



Yet, only 35 percent of the women in the study were working full-time five years after birth. That clearly affected how much they were earning. When you reduce your hours to part-time, you reduce your hourly wages.


However, the study also suggested that mothers are perceived (correctly or not) as less willing or able to spend extra time working. That lack of time is seen, by some, as a lack of "commitment" to the company, and it translates into smaller promotions and raises.


This new information, coupled with what I told you two weeks ago — that the cost of raising one child closes in on $250,000, not including college — makes the prospects of motherhood significantly more daunting. There are also ways to protect your career — and your wages — while still having the family you had in mind.


• Have "the talk" with your boss.



Allison O'Kelly, CEO of, a jobs site for moms, suggests making sure that your boss knows what to expect when you're expecting. Post-baby, are you planning on keeping the same hours or are you trying to cut back to part-time? Whatever your decision is, communicate that to your employer.


"You have to make sure nobody's penalizing you for having a child," O'Kelly says.

If you're planning on maintaining normal, full-time hours, you shouldn't see much of a wage hit (if any).


• Think about what's important to you.


If salary is your most important consideration, make sure you don't take too much time off beyond the allotted 12 to 14 weeks of maternity leave — and certainly don't leave altogether.



"I think (a wage hit) is a lot less likely if you stay in the work force than if you leave," O'Kelly says. "It's the people who say, 'I'm gonna take a year off' — that it starts hitting them more."

O'Kelly also noted that having many kids in a short amount of time — say, four kids in four years — could affect your salary, because even if you're taking only a 12-week maternity leave per child, it adds up to significant time away from the office, which could result in smaller raises.


• Keep your door open.


Whether you're leaving the office for a few weeks or the work force for a few years, it's important to maintain your professional connections. This isn't to say you should have your BlackBerry next to the baby monitor, but if you're going to be away only for a little while, consider checking in with your co-workers once every two weeks, just to stay in the loop. For those who become stay-at-home moms, this advice still applies. Keep your connections and maybe even do some volunteer work that relates to your field. When you eventually decide to go back, you won't be starting from scratch — and neither will your salary.

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