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The 'price' of motherhood on employment and earnings for working women

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iStock / Special to The Forum
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FARGO — Jane Pettinger doesn’t want to think about what her income would be right now had she not left the full-time workforce due to parental duties.

Motherhood doesn’t come without a cost on pay and in the labor market — a price Pettinger, an assistant professor at Minnesota State Moorhead’s Paseka School of Business, and many women know all too well.

“Imagine if I had continued working full time, say as a professor. I would have had tenure, I would’ve had research publications, I would have had all the kind of upper-level stuff that goes with being a university professor that I don’t,” said Pettinger, whose background is also in human resources.

Pettinger, a mother of four, didn’t go back to work full time until all of her kids were in high school or college — marking about a 15-year-gap.

The share of women in the workforce falls by 18 percentage points in the quarter they give birth to their first child, according to new research by the U.S. Census Bureau . For women who only have one child, the rate of workforce participation remains at a lower level than before birth, but stabilizes. Subsequent births decrease workforce participation further.


Jane Pettinger, an associate professor of management at Minnesota State University Moorhead, says business people would do well to resolve to be engaged with their employees, invest in technology and make sure they keep trying to be an innovator in their industry.

Pettinger, who has taught on and off since the 1980s, worked at North Dakota State University throughout the births of her first three kids. She was on an eight- or nine-month employment contract, so she was never eligible for family leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, which applies to people who are full-time, 12-month workers.

She took little to no leave when her kids were born, she said.

The Family Medical Leave Act guarantees time off for parental and other types of family needs, but it doesn’t guarantee pay for that period.

As part of the FMLA, employers must continue providing health insurance, seniority levels and things of that nature, but aren’t required to pay wages. However, some companies will give paid time off and have specific paternity-maternity paid leave policies, Pettinger said.

When her fourth child was born, Pettinger was working in Austin, Minn., as an HR director of a health center. She had been working there less than a year, so again, she wasn’t eligible for the FMLA.

At that point, it didn’t make sense for her to not stay home, she said. About 43% of women workers had at least one year with no earnings — at least twice the rate of men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research .


“The cost of child care would’ve been significant, and each kid had their own unique needs and issues,” Pettinger said.

At the time, her husband’s job was more stable than hers, so Pettinger exited the full-time workforce for some time.

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iStock / Special to The Forum

The Census report also showed when working women have children, they experience a big but temporary drop in earnings.

The dip in income can be attributed to maternity leave, which is not always paid, but could also be a lack of eligibility for things like bonuses that are based on work results that would be hindered if a mother is out for a period of time, Pettinger said.

“Part of it is just straight up — they made less money that year because they took unpaid time off,” Pettinger said. “But part of it is going to be, they may not have been in on the conversation when this, that or the other thing was talked about, or the contributions they might have been able to make were simply hampered by their lack of presence, so they’re not as strongly considered for things like promotions and advancements. And they might miss opportunities to serve on committees or projects that would have otherwise been beneficial to their overall career.”

The ongoing gender pay gap is greater for working mothers.


In North Dakota, the median annual earnings of mothers was $40,000 — $22,452 less than that of fathers, which was $62,452, according to the National Women’s Law Center’s analysis of U.S. Census data. In Minnesota, NWLC’S 2019 state rankings showed the gap was thinner, with mothers earning an average of 75 cents for every dollar a father makes, or $15,878 less annually.

Throughout Kriss Burns’ 20 years in the employment and staffing human resources world, she’s seen how being a mother can affect employment.

“Sometimes it’s not deliberate, but you know,” Burns said. “I’ve seen how employers have discriminated against younger families, whether it’s maybe somebody that’s getting passed over for a promotion, or maybe they’re not hired because they know that they have a young child at home and maybe they’re afraid that they're going to need too much time off or there's going to be day care issues.”

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Working mother and human resources business consultant Kriss Burns speaks during a meeting in the PRO Resources boardroom in Fargo. Photo by Bethany Johs / Special to The Forum

Burns, who now works at PRO Resources in Fargo as an HR business consultant, was a single mom raising two little ones when she was starting out in her career. She had always held a two-year degree, but went back to school when her daughter was in kindergarten, eventually getting her MBA; all while working full time.

“Whether you’re a young mom or a working mom, sometimes you put your career on hold and put your education on hold to be a mom,” Burns added.

Christy Dauer is familiar with the trade-off mindset.

Dauer, who is the program manager for the North Dakota Women’s Business Center, got married in 2007, when she was then at a regional brokerage company. She chose to build her career first before having children.

“It was not my goal to be barefoot and pregnant right away, because I wanted that career. I wanted that established career,” Dauer said.

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Christy Dauer of the North Dakota Women’s Business Center. Photo by Britta the Photographer / Special to The Forum

The AAUW reported 23% of working parents say they’ve been treated as if they aren’t committed to their work because they have kids.

Dauer felt like it was a choice between a career or family. She was also relatively new at the brokerage company at the time and had a lot of growth opportunity.

“It is sad that we feel as if we have to choose time with our children or climbing a ladder,” Dauer said. “I mentor a couple girls that are in the teens and they’re already saying, ‘Oh Christy, you did it right. You didn’t have kids right away.’ And I'm like, ‘No, wait a second. I did climb that ladder. But I climbed it with two kids toting beside me.’”

Dauer, who made the leap to the Women’s Business Center because of its family-first culture, works to reinforce that women can do both.

Christy Dauer, middle, balances working from home and taking care of her two sons, guinea pig and dog, amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Dauer, the program manager at the North Dakota Women’s Business Center, chose to build her career first before having children, but says women can do both. Photo special to The Forum

Carissa Wigginton is a high school sports reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. A Fargo native, she graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Wigginton joined The Forum’s sports department in August 2019.
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