While balancing a family and career is difficult for any woman -- whether she has one child or five -- recent Australian research suggests that women with three or more children are over 10 percent less likely to be a part of the workforce than mothers with one or two children.
Presenting a paper on her findings at the Australian Social Policy conference at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Friday, social scientist Anna Zhu said that women with three or more kids are less likely to go back to work after having children -- even after their children reach their teenage years and adulthood.
According to the paper, titled "Fertility and Labour Market Participation," an analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data for 13,000 women revealed that while 68 percent of mothers with two children are employed, only 55 percent of moms with three or more kids have a job.
The disparity was largest among women under 30: In that demographic, only 21 percent of mothers of three were working, compared to 41 percent of moms with two children. The trend continued for older women as well: for women between 45 and 49, 81 percent of moms of two worked while 70 percent of mothers of three worked.
According to The Australian, Zhu, who wrote the paper with fellow UNSW Ph.D. candidate Catherine Brogan, was surprised by this last bit of data:
"You would probably expect a gap when the children are at younger ages because of the high costs of childcare and just trying to manage it all... But when the children get older you'd think those mothers with three children would be looking to get back into the workforce to be helping with things like school fees or university fees that might be coming up, yet it's still the case they are less likely to be in the workforce."
But is having three children the kiss of career death outside Australia, too?
American researchers also see having children negatively affect women's career longevity, but earlier in the growth of the family.
"We have always seen that the second child is the tipping point for when women begin to feel overwhelmed and are less likely to stay in [the workforce] or go back to work," Katherine Sumberg, Senior Vice President at the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP), told The Huffington Post. According to Sumberg, a mother who was ready to leap back into work after having her first child is significantly more hesitant after having her second. Although the CWLP does not collect data regarding three-child families, she believes that having more than two children only makes it more difficult to reenter the workforce.
A now famous 2005 CWLP study titled "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," found that, although most mothers intended to go back to work, their "exits" often were not temporary. A 2010 follow-up study indicated that 31 percent of mothers take an "off-ramp" that lasts approximately 2.7 years. But of the 89 percent of mothers who took a break to raise children and said that they wanted to return to work, only 40 percent actually did.
There are probably reasons for this phenomenon. Some women can't find work after having children. "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited" showed that 73 percent of women who intend to rejoin the workforce after choosing to take time off for childcare have difficulty finding another job.
Other women who could probably find jobs are wary of the way they will be perceived in the workplace.
Co-workers and bosses often view and treat women with children differently from those without families, Sumberg said. "[Employers] might say that a woman with many children might not want to travel or work late or take on more tasks," she noted. "It's not meant to be malicious; in fact, the intent is usually [to be] helpful, but it often takes away from what drives a woman's positive experiences at work."
Women with children might also be reluctant to rejoin the workforce due to a lack of confidence, Zhu told The Australian. For example, she said, women who take time off to raise their children might not be aware of evolving technologies relevant to their fields, thus making them less desirable to prospective employers.
Since the Australian government grants tax incentives, also known as baby bonuses, to women who reproduce (in 2004, Australian Treasurer Peter Costello even suggested that having three kids specifically -- "one for your husband and one for your wife and one for the country" -- was a sign of patriotism), Zhu suggested that there should also be programs in place to train women in the skills they need to rejoin the workforce after having children.
And then there's the money issue. While many women simply can't afford not to go back to work, some find their earning potential after successive children so dramatically reduced that returning isn't their best option.
"Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited" found that women who are able to return to work rarely make it back to the status and salary of their previous positions. Over 25 percent have decreased management responsibilities, 22 percent must accept a lower job title and 16 percent reported suffering a pay cut.
Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work at Columbia University whose research focuses on women's employment, told The Huffington Post that this issue deserves our attention even more than how often women with one versus two versus three children return to work.
"What I find more concerning is that women who have more children also earn lower wages, even when they are working, because they are more likely to have had breaks in employment and because they are more likely to be in part-time low-paid jobs," Waldfogel said. "This is a tremendous waste of human capital and also unfair."
A 2005 Cornell study found that women in the United States suffer from a wage penalty of approximately 5 percent per child. And in 2010, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising.org, told Good Morning America, "Women without children make 90 cents to a man's dollar, while women with children make only 73 cents to a man's dollar."
"Making employment for mothers more possible, and at a decent wage, is the gender equity challenge for our time," Waldfogel said.