WOMEN
05/27/2018 08:00 am ET

Everyone Is Missing A Key Reason The U.S. Birth Rate Is Declining

In the U.S., women are essentially punished for having kids.
Katia Hills and her son. She says she's afraid to have another kid after the discrimination she faced at work the first time
Courtesy of the ACLU
Katia Hills and her son. She says she's afraid to have another kid after the discrimination she faced at work the first time around.

Katia Hills, a healthy 27-year-old married woman, said she was afraid to have another child after what happened the last time.

Before she got pregnant with her son in 2014, Hills was working at an AT&T store in Elkhart, Indiana, where her career was taking off. She was promoted to sales rep after just a few months. She loved her work selling cellphones and tablets. Her evaluations were good.

Then her managers learned she was expecting. The punishments piled up, according to a discrimination lawsuit she filed against AT&T last week in federal court. If Hills needed to go to the doctor or was late because of morning sickness, she was docked a “point.” Employees who lose enough points under AT&T’s system face the possibility of losing their jobs.

The points started adding up. At the same time, Hills observed that her nonpregnant colleagues did not get any penalties when they were late to work.  

“I was being treated a lot different,” Hills told HuffPost. “It was devastating.”

In an emailed statement, AT&T said it’s reviewing Hills’ complaint. “We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, including for an employee’s gender or pregnancy.” The company noted it provides “generous benefits,” including various types of paid and unpaid days off and leaves of absence. 

I was being treated a lot different. It was devastating. Katia Hills

Pregnancy and the arrival of a new child should be a time of joy and excitement, but for working women in the United States, it’s often a time of financial stress and uncertainty. Women who dare become mothers are subject to additional discrimination, bias and harassment.

Is it any wonder they’re having fewer children?

Last week, the CDC released a report revealing that the U.S. birth rate ― the number of babies born nationwide ― is the lowest it’s been in 30 years and is below the “replacement” rate needed to sustain the population.

One New York Times article said “social factors” explained the decline; women were putting off childbirth in favor of their careers, and an opinion piece on Friday blamed the patriarchy. Bloomberg said economic factors were the culprit. Conservatives blamed social media and pornography, claiming everyone is just having less sex. Fox News personality Tucker Carlson twisted his argument until he somehow pinpointed male immigrants as the culprit.

But all of these stories ignore a basic reality: Most women in the U.S., even before they get pregnant, know how little social support exists for them as mothers.

A shocking 88 percent of workers get no paid leave in the United States, according to the Labor Department. About 1 in 4 mothers go back to work less than two weeks after giving birth, according to a 2015 report. This often leads to devastating health outcomes for parents and babies.

Having kids often isn’t financially viable.

For low-income women, motherhood can throw you into poverty. For higher-earners, pregnancy knocks you off track for promotions and pay raises.

A clear wage penalty for mothers is also not helping. Even though more than 70 percent of families rely on a mother’s income, moms working full time earn about 71 percent of what fathers make, according to a March report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. That’s a full 9 points lower than the average gender wage gap.

To the extent that some women would want to be mothers if it was financially viable, but don’t want to risk good careers or poverty, that’s not a free choice,” said Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, an associate professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. “Women are painted into a corner.”

Birth rates are rising for older women and declining for younger ones, according to CDC data.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Birth rates are rising for older women and declining for younger ones, according to CDC data.

Though the economy has recovered from its crash in the previous decade, the economic picture for many families has not. Wages are stagnant in the United States, despite low unemployment. A recent study from the Federal Reserve showed that 4 in 10 Americans don’t have an extra $400 for an emergency expense.

Ananat also points to rising levels of student loan debt, a weakened social safety net, a historically low minimum wage and a declining number of good jobs for less-educated women and men. Combine that with a lack of paid leave and “rampant discrimination” against mothers, and women like Hills are starting to think they can’t afford a baby.

“We’ve done better at getting these women access to contraception,” she said. “But we haven’t made it financially viable to have children.”

What’s more, as economic prospects for men have declined in recent years, women have increasingly become primary breadwinners.

Hills said she didn’t really think about any of these economic concerns before she got pregnant. She was shocked by what happened.

Despite racking up penalty points at AT&T, Hills was able to make it through to maternity leave, which the company does offer. But her boss made that rough, too. He called her a lot, asking when she’d come back; she spoke to him about returning part-time, for starters. He said he’d allow that, but only if she came back four weeks after giving birth. She declined.

The second day Hills returned from maternity leave, she was told she had accrued too many points and was fired.  

“I just felt shattered. I just saw so much potential with that company,” she said.

Women at every income level get punished for having kids.

Higher-educated professionals also fear motherhood, and not without reason: Women who become mothers are often viewed as less invested in work, even if there’s no indication that’s true.

Women who worked at law firm Morrison Foerster sued the firm this year for putting them on the “mommy track,” a road that leads to lower salaries, less prestigious work and fewer promotions.  

The suit alleges that when the women became mothers, the firm pressured them to work longer hours but also denied them assignments “because of stereotype-driven perceptions that they lack commitment to their jobs.”

“The stereotype becomes self-reinforcing, and women become stuck,” the suit said.

For reasons like these, female lawyers are 16 percent less likely than their male counterparts to have a child before their law firm makes a decision about whether or not they become partners, according to a yet-to-be-published working paper from economists at Wellesley College and the U.S. Naval Academy.

That means female lawyers delay having children until their late thirties, explained Nayoung Rim, one of the study’s co-authors.

The percentage of lawyers delaying childbirth is higher in states with fewer work-family benefits and higher reported levels of sexism, Rim said.

The study also found that mothers who did get promoted to lucrative partner positions were often far more qualified for them than their male peers ― indicating that mothers face a higher “promotion threshold,” Rim said. If you have a child, you must work even harder to overcome the stereotype that you’re not devoted to your work.

“They expect women to prove themselves even more relative to a man,” she said.

Rim believes the study’s findings can be extended to other high-demand careers, including in consulting and academia. They also help explain one piece of CDC data: The only age group that’s seen birth rates rise since the previous report is women ages 35-44.

For women earning low wages, there never seems to be a good time for parenthood.

Left with only one income to depend on, Hills and her husband eventually moved in with his parents. Their dream to buy a house went “out the window,” she said.

Two law firms and the American Civil Liberties Union are now representing Hills and another former AT&T employee who also said she was discriminated against. The hope is that more women will join the litigation and force AT&T to change its policy, which the suit says violates federal anti-discrimination laws.

“I don’t want anyone to feel what I felt in worrying about starting a family,” Hills said.

As her son approaches his third birthday, Hills and her husband have managed to move into an apartment, and she has a new job in sales. Still, she doesn’t feel safe enough for pregnancy.

“I’m scared to have a second child because of what I went through,” she said. “I wish I didn’t feel this way. It’s beautiful to have a family. Having a son is the most amazing thing, and I wish I could’ve enjoyed it with none of this extra stress.”

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