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Study of Mich. Law Grads Finds Lawyer Moms Earn Up to 35% Less

Posted Oct 21, 2008 9:55 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: Lawyer moms earn up to 35 percent less than lawyer dads, according to a study of University of Michigan law grads.

Results of the draft study (PDF) found that male law grads who became fathers enjoyed a "daddy bonus" in salaries that were 15 percent to 20 percent higher than childless men. Mothers, on the other hand, earned 10 percent to 15 percent less than childless women, and 25 percent to 35 percent less than fathers.

The "mommy penalty" was higher when the study considered parents who had children living at home and lower when it considered parents who had children, whether or not they lived at home.

Tax professor Neil Buchanan of the George Washington University Law School is the author of the study.

“The division of labor in the home is still very traditional, apparently, and that has a direct impact on the earnings of men and women,” Buchanan told the ABA Journal. “It’s not just that fathers are rewarded for being breadwinners, which is one theory that’s out there, but that women are affirmatively disadvantaged in their salaries by the fact that they have kids.”

Buchanan speculates on three possible reasons for the daddy bonus for lawyers: Fathers may feel the need to work harder to make money for the family. Or men may wait to become fathers until their salaries are high enough to support the family. A third possibility—one he calls his “cynical favorite”—is that fathers shirk child care responsibilities by hiding in the office, causing their salaries to increase.

Buchanan reached his conclusions by examining data from two surveys of University of Michigan law students who graduated between 1970 and 1996, he writes at the Concurring Opinions blog. More than 700 grads answered questions about their gender and number of children.

The study also found that childless women earn about 8 percent or 9 percent less than childless men, but cautioned that the "statistical robustness" of the finding was somewhat weak.

Buchanan called that finding “a pretty darn good hint that there’s just plain-old gender sexism going on in the legal world as well, because it’s not just a mommy penalty. Even childless women earn less than childless men.” He said the reason females earn less may be simply because of a perceived “threat that they might have kids.”

Buchanan says the differences in pay can’t be explained by part-time work or different job choices. Only a small percentage of the women worked part-time, he said, too few to influence the conclusions even when he did not factor them out.

The study's findings echo Census Bureau statistics that show women lawyers made a median of $93,600 in 2007, a salary that was 77.8 percent of male lawyers’ median salary of $120,400.

Buchanan is an economist who went to law school at the age of 40 after developing an interest in feminist legal studies. He is looking forward to “the fun of just crunching the numbers” when he gets new data on Michigan grads from researchers in the spring.

Hat tip to TaxProf Blog and the Wall Street Journal.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. to include comments from Buchanan. Updated on Aug. 4, 2010, to correct the spelling of Buchanan's name.

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