The unequal division of household work leads to the "mom penalty." For highly educated, high-income women, it could mean losing promotions, future earning power and roles as future leaders.



There's a thing called the mom penalty. It's the price women pay when they step back from their jobs to have kids. The penalty is severe for well-educated, highly paid women. Stepping down the career ladder puts their earning power and futures as female leaders at risk. Now the pandemic is piling on, as NPR's Andrea Hsu explains.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Joyce Chen was that working mom who somehow was making it all work. She's an associate professor of development economics at the Ohio State University. She was eyeing a promotion to full professor next year, a rare achievement for women in economics. And then came the pandemic.

JOYCE CHEN: It's almost impossible to do research (laughter) in these kinds of circumstances. You know, there's always something going on, and somebody needs something or something's not working.

HSU: Her husband's been tied up with a huge pandemic-related project, so she has been the parent keeping things together for their three kids, which means her own research is now on hold.

CHEN: You know, the first month or two, I thought maybe I'd be able to get back to it. But that never really happened.

HSU: She's missed out on grant opportunities, and she hasn't submitted any papers for publication this year. She's turned down collaborations.

CHEN: And of course, it's not just women that are having to do that now. But, you know, that's something that's going to ripple out through your entire career, really.

HSU: Chen has had four productive years but now wonders if that promotion might be derailed. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has seen this division of labor play out for decades in affluent, highly educated families just like Chen's. And she's seeing it play out now in the pandemic.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Women just step into that void.

HSU: Creating not just the mom penalty but the dad premium. In normal times, it's driven by the biological clock. Women step back to have and raise kids just as their careers are taking off, giving men the opportunity not just to carry on with work but to amp up their careers. For women, the setbacks can be significant and long-lasting, especially so for those in higher-paid fields. Take MBAs. Goldin found that starting salaries for men and women are pretty close, but by mid-career, women make just 64 cents for every dollar earned by men.

GOLDIN: The differences when they come out pale in comparison to the differences that evolve over time.

HSU: And Goldin ties that directly to motherhood. Jessica Mintz of Los Angeles never imagined she'd be a stay-at-home mom. She's had an exciting career in corporate marketing over 14 years, even worked when her kids were babies.

JESSICA MINTZ: Before, I would say we were a very, like, two-career balanced family. And now we're very traditional. My husband's the only one working. I'm home with the kids.

HSU: Mintz had a nanny up until last year. Now she spends her days homeschooling her 4-year-old and helping her second-grader with distance learning.

MINTZ: I don't know when this is going to end. I don't know when we'll be able to go back to something that resembled normal. But I do worry that when I get to that point, I'll have had this gap.

HSU: A career gap brought on by the pandemic. Mintz worries that this lost time could make her less competitive, but here's the reality. Even with an MBA, she wasn't earning as much as her husband. He's in sales. If they were going to live on one salary, it had to be his.

MINTZ: In terms of our family, there was no way that it could have been him who stepped into this position.

HSU: Now, of course, there are exceptions to all of this - dads who've stayed home with kids and moms like Amy Chantasirivisal. She is a software engineer who spent 13 years building websites in Silicon Valley, where it was growth at all cost.

AMY CHANTASIRIVISAL: If it wasn't seven days a week - and in some cases, it was - it was at the very least on your mind seven days a week even if you weren't actively working.

HSU: So six months after having a baby, Chantasirivisal realized she had no path forward in the relentless startup culture. She went looking for change and landed at a small tech company founded by a husband and wife who are themselves parents who get it. Early on in the pandemic, they told their employees, things are not business as usual. Take the time you need, which Chantasirivisal took as...

CHANTASIRIVISAL: Permission to be unproductive.

HSU: That bit of empathy, she says, goes a long way. Business at the company remains good, proving that even in a pandemic, there are possibilities - just nowhere near enough and out of reach for far too many women.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.