Five years ago Sarah Hosseini had a great gig as a TV producer for a news station in Charlotte, N.C.
She loved the work, and expected a continual—and satisfying—climb up the career ladder. So she never imagined that having a baby at 25 would forever change that trajectory.
But that's exactly what happened.
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"I wanted to take a little time off for the birth of my child—more than the three months of maternity leave my corporate job was willing to give me, but definitely less than a year," Hosseini, 30, recalls.
When she asked her boss about possibly extending her maternity leave, or implementing partial work-from-home hours for a bit, she was met with a hard no—it was all or nothing.
Because her $30,000 salary would have been completely eaten up paying for full-time day care, Hosseini decided to quit her job.
Since then she's become a freelance writer, and had another child. And while she earns about the same amount as she did at her old job, she goes without such employee benefits as paid time off and subsidized insurance coverage.
Returning to a full-time job in television production is appealing, but Hosseini knows that she'd have to start at a lower-level position, along with a salary cut—and she can't afford that.
"My old career path has run dry," she says. "I never wanted to be forever banished from my career, or thrown off my professional track, all because I had kids."
The 30% Mommy Penalty
Stories like Hosseini's aren't uncommon. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a woman's earnings generally take a 30% dive after being out of the workforce for two to three years.
"There's a ton of discrimination for women who've taken time off to care for their kids, which is technically illegal but doesn't stop people from doing it," says Sarah Jane Glynn, director for women's economic policy at the Center for American Progress.
There's even a name for the phenomenon: "the mommy penalty."
From an employer's perspective, Glynn recognizes the rationale used in paying less. Should someone who hasn't been working for an extended time really command the same type of salary and position as someone who's been consistently working and keeping their skills fresh?
The answer, says Glynn, depends on your industry and your role.
"If you're talking about someone who works in technology, it can make an enormous difference in terms of whether or not you're up-to-date on skills," she explains. "But if you're a high school teacher, taking time off probably isn't going to mean that you'll be unable to keep up with your peers if you return to work."
However, she argues that, in most cases, women can be brought back up to speed pretty quickly. So why are so many women still being hit with the mommy penalty even if they're able to hit the ground running?
It may be about more than just the amount of time spent away.
The way moms are perceived in the workplace can be an additional salary factor—whether or not they took a break from their job.
Dads who live with their kids experience an over 6% pay bump. On the flipside, mothers are hit with a 4% pay decrease for each kid they have.
Battling the Mommy Bias
According to research out of the University of Rhode Island, working moms are often viewed as being less competent, committed and productive as their childless peers.
"We don't have these same assumptions about men," Glynn says. "There are actually studies that show the reverse—people assume that fathers are going to be more dedicated to work because they now have an additional mouth to feed."
One recent study from the research group Third Way found that, on average, dads who live with their kids experience an over 6% pay bump. On the flipside, mothers are hit with a 4% pay decrease for each kid they have.
"People have this idea that, when you're a mom, your life is going to revolve around your kids in particular ways—that's going to be your number-one priority. And it's going to distract you from being a good worker," Glynn says.
All of these factors, adds Glynn, can make women who take a break more financially vulnerable to unexpected changes—from a partner's job loss to divorce—in their family's financial situation.
Angelina Capalbo, a 35-year-old administrative worker in Unionville, CT, dealt with this firsthand.
When she had her daughter six years ago, the original plan was for Capalbo to stay home until her child was ready for kindergarten, while relying on her husband's salary to keep them afloat.
But when they divorced two years later, Capalbo was hastily thrown back into the workforce.
Prior to having her daughter, she'd been making $75,000 a year, plus bonuses, as an executive assistant. Unfortunately, walking back into that type of setup proved impossible.
The only gig Capalbo was able to secure was an administrative position that paid just $15 an hour. Since then, she's bounced around to similar jobs and is currently earning $22 an hour as a temp-to-perm office worker.
And short-term financial struggles aren't the only concern for Capalbo. She's also had to put building up her emergency fund and saving for retirement on the back-burner—moves that could put her future in jeopardy.
"I think that's a nasty surprise that women, in particular, end up experiencing when they've taken extended spells out of the labor force [to stay with children]," Glynn says. "Anybody who understands how compound interest works knows that it's really important to be putting money away during your 20s and 30s, so if those are the years that you're taking off, that can really hit you down the line."
How to Get Back in the Game—and Get Paid Your Worth
When Alison Risso, now a public relations professional in the Washington, D.C., area, had her second child nine years ago, her boss assumed that a slower work pace might be a better fit for her.
"While I was on my maternity leave, I got a call saying I'd be switched over to a smaller department," recalls Risso, 42. "I wasn't expecting it—and wasn't consulted about it."
The lateral move came with the same salary, but a less hectic workload. And Risso says her boss, also a mom, had good intentions, thinking she was doing Risso a favor by lightening her load a bit.
The new department was indeed less hectic—because it was generating less revenue and not performing as well as others. And this all played into the reason why Risso was laid off later that year.
The situation had a happy ending, though: Risso snagged a better position at another company, and was able to negotiate a higher salary.
According to Evelyn Murphy, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and founder of the WAGE Project, knowing your worth—and being ready to negotiate—is critical for moms who are navigating a return to the workforce.
"It shouldn't really matter if you've been out of work for several years raising kids or not," Murphy says. "It's about what you'd bring to the job."
Many women—regardless of where they are in the earning spectrum—don't know how to assess their worth in the marketplace.
And that's why Murphy advises moms who are just getting back in the game to approach the situation without assuming they'll have to take a demotion or pay cut just to secure a job.
Murphy, who's been leading salary negotiation workshops for nearly a decade, says that many women—regardless of where they are in the earning spectrum—don't know how to assess their worth in the marketplace in an independent way.
Her advice? Before you walk into any interview, thoroughly research what the current going rate is for that particular job in your given area—and then use that information during the negotiation process.
Glynn adds that women opting out of full-time work for a few years should also think about their big-picture plans. Do you want to eventually return to your career? If so, staying connected to your industry can be the key to a smooth reentry.
This might mean working part-time, or doing some freelance work during the years you're at home, which will help keep your résumé fresh and current.
"Even if it's something as simple as keeping in touch with your colleagues and regularly having coffee with them, just maintaining that network is super important," Glynn says. "Not only so you're abreast of what's happening in your field, but also because those kinds of networks, frankly, are increasingly how people find jobs."