WOMEN who interrupt their careers to have a baby can easily calculate the wages they lose during an unpaid leave. What they can't tabulate are hidden losses after they return to work - losses that keep their paychecks lower than those of female peers who stay on the job.
A new study finds that women who take time out for family reasons rarely catch up, even 20 years after resuming their careers. During a woman's first year back on the job, researchers found, her wages were 33 percent lower than those of comparable women who never left. After three to five years, the wage gap shrunk to 20 percent, dropping to 10 percent after 11 to 20 years. But even two decades later, the returning women - dubbed "gappers" - still earned 7 percent less.
The new study, based on extensive interviews with nearly 2,500 career women, offers several explanations for the lower wages. First, according to Joyce Jacobsen and Laurence Levin, economics professors who conducted the research, bosses may think women who take time out aren't serious about their jobs. "If you leave the work force, that signals to some employers that a woman might not be as good a worker," Professor Levin observes. "Or when a woman who had a baby comes back to work, an employer might thi nk she's got her mind on her baby and her home life instead of her job."
Extended periods away from the labor force also cause women to lose seniority and on-the-job training, thus diminishing their earning power. At the same time, long breaks may reduce a worker's skills, even if only temporarily.
A prolonged absence can produce legitimate disparities in wages. But a relatively brief timeout to care for a baby shouldn't carry long-term economic penalties. To perceive a female employee as a career dilettante simply because she has a family smacks of sex discrimination.
In recent years, employers have shown greater willingness to accommodate the short-term needs of workers with infants and young children. As the work force becomes more diverse and more flexible, perhaps short-term "gappers" will no longer pay such a high price at work for the important family responsibilities they fulfill at home.