Being a Mother, Being a Leader Redux – Gender Wage Gap, Gender Leadership Gap

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the impact of motherhood on leadership. More specifically, each is about the impact of being a mother, especially of babies and young children, on the ambition of women actively to pursue positions of leadership.

Here I argue that new research on the persistence of the gender wage gap is equally pertinent to the persistence of the gender leadership gap. Recent findings indicate that the reason for the gender wage gap is not what we thought. It is not, for example, gender discrimination, or choice of profession – women working in fields that pay less. Instead the wage gap between women and men is a penalty for bearing children.

The research was conducted by Princeton University economist Henrik Kleven, and described in a recent article in Vox.* Kleven found a “sharp decline” in women’s earnings after the birth of their first child – with no comparable salary drop for men. Put differently, the earnings of women who are childless are the approximate equivalent of men’s; the earnings of women with children are significantly lower. This wage gap persists across countries and cultures, even in Scandinavia, with its exceedingly flexible and generous family friendly public policies.

What happens in Denmark is a case in point. While on paper parents are allowed to split up their parental leave equally, in practice it doesn’t happen. In practice, Danish women take off fully 90% of time after the birth of a child – with men accounting for only 10 percent of parental leave. Why?

For the public record Kleven says there are two possible explanations. One is nurture – an environment in which social norms encourage women, not men, to be the primary caregivers. The other is nature – women could have a stronger preference than men for spending time on childcare.  Which again raises the question, why? Why might women have this stronger preference?

To answer the question, I turn to prehistory. To a world in which only mothers had the capacity to ensure the survival of the species – that is, to feed their helpless infants. To a world in which fathers provided direct care of their offspring in only 5% of mammal species.


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