Why don’t mothers leave their jobs?


by Jessica Looze

Changing jobs during one’s early career has become increasingly common, and is often a way for young workers to secure higher pay, better benefits, or greater opportunities. For those who are unable to enjoy the benefits of early career job mobility, these missed opportunities may contribute to a lifetime of lower earnings and other disadvantages. An individual’s ability to change jobs is often dependent upon a number of factors, one important one being motherhood – as bearing and raising young children often has important influences on women’s career decisions.

In a recent study published in Social Science Research, I consider how motherhood shapes women’s decisions to either stay with their current employer or pursue another job. I use panel data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 to examine how both pregnancy and young children influence women’s job changes and employment exits. I distinguish among three reasons for leaving a job: family-related reasons, non-family voluntary reasons, and involuntary reasons (such as being laid off or fired). In this post, I highlight findings on the effects of motherhood on non-family voluntary job changes, as these are the types of changes that most often lead to wage growth.

Why might mothers be less likely than women without children to make voluntary job changes? We can consider a host of possible reasons. Location of child care or other activities may limit the distance mothers are willing or able to travel to a new job. Established relationships with an employer may be especially valuable to mothers as this may allow greater leverage in negotiating accommodations such as flex-time or telecommuting that might make combining motherhood and paid work easier. Legislation might also be a factor, as the Family Medical Leave Act requires workers to have been employed with a company for a minimum of one year prior to taking leave. Caring for young children may limit the time women have to search for a new job. Women’s networks tend to shrink during the early years of motherhood and mothers often have less contact with people in their networks. This may limit information about new job opportunities. Discrimination by potential employers might also inhibit mothers’ abilities to change jobs.

In my analysis, I find that indeed, both pregnancy and preschool-age children reduce women’s voluntary job changes. Pregnancy decreases voluntary job changes by 66%, and each additional preschool-age child decreases such changes by 9%. These findings highlight the immobilizing effects of motherhood, as women who are pregnant or caring for young children are less likely than women without children to change jobs. As it is well-established that mothers face a wage penalty relative to women without children, my findings suggest reduced job mobility among mothers may be contributing to this penalty.

The story does not end here however. I also examine differences in the effects of motherhood on job changes by race-ethnicity and find that while considering women in the aggregate, preschool-age children decreased the hazard of voluntary job changes, models that include interactions for race-ethnicity show these effects only hold for white women.

For white women, each additional preschool-age child lowers the chances of a voluntary change by 16%, while for Blacks and Hispanic women, preschool-age children have no significant effect on women’s job changes. This finding aligns with research that shows the motherhood wage penalty is incurred primarily by white women. If differences in voluntary job changes play a part in creating this penalty, it makes sense that the penalty would be found in the group of women for whom young children constrain such changes the most.

Why might we see these differences by race-ethnicity? One possible reason is that the types of practical support, especially childcare, that Black and Hispanic women more often receive from kin may enable these mothers to more easily change jobs. Another possible reason is that white women may have greater access to workplace accommodations such as telecommuting or flexible hours, prompting white women with young children to stay with their current employer rather than seek out another opportunity.

It is important to be clear that although I find preschool-age children do not constrain Black and Hispanic women’s voluntarily job changes in the same way they do for white women, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Black and Hispanic women’s wages are benefitting more from their ability to change jobs. Research has found that Black and Hispanic women change jobs less often than white women, and their wage growth is lower when they do. This suggests job changing may be a less lucrative strategy for Black and Hispanic women compared to white women. Further research is needed to more fully understand racial-ethnic differences in the influence of motherhood on women’s job changes, and how this might contribute to the motherhood wage penalty.

What can be done to help mothers change jobs at the same rate as women without children? Policies and programs such as affordable child care at multiple locations, eliminating job tenure requirements for leave benefits, and standardizing benefits such as flexible hours and telecommuting across workplaces would likely go a long way in ensuring mothers enjoy the kinds of flexibility in their early career that is important for wage growth. Recognizing the benefits of job changing during one’s early career, and working towards creative solutions to ensuring mothers are able to realize these benefits, promises to take us a step closer to closing the motherhood wage gap.

Jessica Looze is an Assistant Director of Research & Evaluation at the Center for Public Partnerships & Research, University of Kansas. This article summarizes findings from “Why do(n’t) they leave? Motherhood and women’s job mobility?” published in Social Science Research.

Image: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Girl-Work-Notebook-Computer-Operator-Woman-Design-2386034 (CC0 Public Domain)


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