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  • Work rewards are based on incentive structures that have changed more slowly than women’s labor force participation. Tweet This
  • There is a greater “opportunity cost” of having children for educated women than for educated men. Tweet This

My nine-year-old daughter recently got braces on her top teeth five weeks earlier than anticipated. Her orthodontist had replaced the expander on her bottom teeth the week before. The braces were scheduled to go on six weeks later, and we were told to make an additional short appointment a week before that to get the spacers put in. “Can’t you just put the spacers in now?” I asked, a bit frustrated.

And thus, my daughter’s braces went on five weeks early, because I balked at the notion of yet another appointment on the calendar. I wasn’t even thinking about mom blogger, KJ Dell’Antonia’s recent piece, The Blessings of an Ordinary Week, where she counts a week with no orthodontist or dentist visits as a wonderful blessing. All I was thinking about was trying to juggle my work life and the needs of three young girls.

I missed even more work than I had to for the expander replacement appointment because I scheduled it early enough to be home before the school bus arrived. Clearly, I’m capable of me-centered scheduling, as evidenced by the expedited braces. But when I did the cost/benefit analysis on scheduling the orthodontist visit during the school day, I weighed in the needs of all three of my daughters because, bless them, they are all wonderful and important.

Though there are economies of scale that come with having multiple children, more children mean more teeth—and more “intrusions” on our work lives than fewer children would require. In a recent study, Sara Cools, Simen Markussen, and Marie Strøm took a gendered, sophisticated, long-run, and class-differentiated approach to how family size affects parents’ labor market outcomes. Here’s what I mean:

  • Gendered: Having additional children affects women more than men.
  • Sophisticated: The fact that women with more children are less likely to have high-flying careers doesn’t prove that children compromise careers because people that value children over careers are more likely to have more children. The authors circumvented this problem using an instrumental variables approach to make a story about children impacting careers more believable (based on the observation that couples whose first two children were of the same sex were more likely to have a third than those who started out with a boy and a girl).
  • Long-run: Women work less than men do while rearing children, but this effect goes away as children mature. Still, the question of how women fare after their work hours are no longer curtailed remained unanswered. Cools, Markussen, and Strøm used Norwegian register data to assess the career effects later in life associated with children.
  • Class-differentiated: The consequences of reduced labor supply (read as, shorter hours or discontinuous work) are larger in higher-paying occupations. Cools and her colleagues found that women with college degrees suffered a greater motherhood penalty in career advancement than less educated women did. Skills suffer more from non-use in more abstract occupations than in manual ones—it is harder to re-enter a research career than to return to being a cashier—and thus children “cost” more for women with more education.

Overall, the findings from this research are not surprising: even when using sophisticated statistical techniques and looking at long-run outcomes, there is a greater “opportunity cost” of having children for educated women than for educated men (whose long-run career outcomes were unaffected by their number of children). Nonetheless, the research reveals some things that we didn’t know about how this process works.

I think the best way to describe it is to call it horizontal stratification. Maria Charles and Karen Bradley are credited with having coined this term to describe how even though women now graduate from college at higher rates than men, they are still “horizontally stratified” within colleges. This means that they go to college, but perhaps don’t attend the most prestigious ones they are capable of gaining entrance to, and they major in less lucrative fields. This is similar to Cools et al.’s finding that women who had more children had the same within-firm status as women with fewer children, but they were employed in less-prestigious places.

So what this means is that college-educated women who have children are likely to re-establish full-time work, but not in the kinds of places they might have worked if they hadn’t helped spawn so many children (and teeth).

I’m glad Dell’Antonia has written more than once about orthodontist appointments because it helps me embrace the fact that teeth don’t represent some unusual bump on a road that good parental planning can keep smooth. In another post, “Resistance Is Useless,” she points out that you are going to make the extra orthodontist appointment for your child: the fact that it wasn’t in your carefully arranged plans to balance paid work and parenting over the course of the week has no bearing on that decision.

She goes on to argue that since we aren’t going to refuse to take the child with a broken bracket to the orthodontist, we may as well do it gracefully rather than angrily. I must agree with her, as my anger is neither attractive nor productive. But while at the individual level I pray to cultivate grace, I am also a social scientist who knows that institutions matter. The work of economist Claudia Goldin concluded:

The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours. Such change has taken off in various sectors, such as technology, science, and health, but is less apparent in the corporate, financial, and legal worlds.

In other words, the rewards derived from work are based on incentive structures that have changed more slowly than women’s labor force participation has—but they don’t have to stay behind. The motherhood penalty doesn’t just come from being a mother; it comes from being a mother in a system where career rewards are linked to the kind of schedules that are least compatible with children’s teeth.

Cools and her colleagues conclude their work by reminding us that a crucial part of the explanation for below-replacement fertility is the declining number of families that have more than two children, and then saying “career costs may be among the most important considerations in this decision.” Institutional change that helps reduce those costs might make it easier for mothers to be gracious at the orthodontist and contribute to the size of the future labor force as well.

Laurie DeRose is a Research Assistant Professor at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she has served since its inception in 2001. She is also Director of Research for the World Family Map project.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.