The Motherhood Penalty

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When I graduated from college I remember telling my then-boyfriend’s mother: One day I’m going to be the editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine. I was a little full of myself, admittedly. And unaware of the amount of hard work and talent it would take to land as a top editor in Si Newhouse’s stable.

I started on the right track. I was an editorial assistant at Working Woman magazine (in the building next door to Conde Nast, where I could watch all the perfectly coiffed girls head to their desks at Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle hoping someday it would be me). Then eventually an assistant editor. And, at another magazine, an associate.

And then – then two things happened in a relatively short period of time. I decided I wanted business magazines rather than women’s magazines, so I diverted and went to work at Forbes, then SmartMoney. And I got married and started to think about having kids. And, rightly or wrongly, I had this thought: Editors, especially editors in chief, always seem to have to be in the office. Writers can spend at least part of their time working from home. When I have a baby, that would be nice. I became a writer.

Thursday morning, ironically enough, I’ll be on the “Today Show” with Cindi Leive – who is the editor of Glamour – discussing the motherhood penalty: Does it exist? Why does it exist? What can be done about it? It’s a discussion that emanates from David Leonhardt’s New York Times column “A Labor Market Punishing to Mothers,” that led with a discussion of how the three most recent women nominated for the Supreme Court – Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Harriet Miers – have been childless, while the last three men have had seven children among them.

It’s a topic I’ve thought about – not with justices as my examples but with women in the media: Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Rachael Ray, Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts don’t have kids. Did that give them more time to devote to their careers? A leg up on success. Then again, Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry, Christiane Amanpour and Barbara Walters do.

In 2007, Ray said to People magazine about not having kids: “I don’t have time. I work too much to be an appropriate parent. I feel like a bad mom to my dog some days because I’m just not here enough. I just feel like I would do a bad job if I actually took the time to literally give birth to a kid right now and try and juggle everything I’m doing.”

In other words, she made a choice. So did I. After I had my first child – I was working as a writer at SmartMoney magazine at the time – I negotiated to work two out of five days from home. Looking back, I know I altered my behavior in the years that followed. I worked harder, produced more than was expected of me and never missed a deadline. I was afraid the bosses would think that I wasn’t working hard enough at home, or worse, not working at all. I made sure to invite my editors to dinner, not as much to show off my lemon chicken as to demonstrate that I had a designated place – away from the baby – to work. And, for years, I didn’t ask for a raise.

That was a mistake. I not only deserved one, I deserved a big one. I was underpaid for my skill set and compared to my peers. But I was so sure I was already receiving favored nation status, I didn’t want to do anything to rock the boat. (It’s a mistake made not just by working moms but by all women – the fact that we don’t negotiate hard enough for our salaries represents a $300,000 lifetime income disparity between women and men according to the book Women Don’t Ask.)

I do think, as Leonhardt points out, poor women, particularly single mothers, are stuck. For them there is a penalty: “[They] do not have a choice between career and family,” he writes. “Their chances of escaping poverty are hurt by the long-term costs of taking time off after childbirth and having little flexibility in their schedules.” For them, a policy change is likely needed to bring about equality in the workforce.

But I’m interested in hearing what the wowOwow community has to say. How have you juggled motherhood and career? Have you felt penalized? What, if anything, would you have done differently?

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