Hayley Nivelle always dreamed of moving to the east coast from her hometown of Kansas City to become a lawyer. After she attended law school at University of Pennsylvania, the dream came true. Nivelle joined one of New York City’s top firms, where she finally began making the money to pay back her student loans. Kids were far from her mind.

“I couldn’t think about having kids while sleeping under my desk,” Nivelle said. “I was satisfied at the time in my good, well-paying job and kids were not on my mind. I was working really hard and traveling when I could and enjoying my 20s.”

After five years, that changed. She got married in 2012 and was ready for a different work environment. Nivelle transitioned to an in-house position serving as a company’s lawyer and had the first of her two children. She was 33.

Nivelle’s experience reflects a long-term trend of college-educated millennial women delaying having children in order to succeed professionally –– and it’s helping them outpace men in the job market. Millennials entered the workforce just as the economy was entering the worst recession since the Great Depression, when their employment rate dropped about 8 percent. Since the economy began its recovery, both millennial men and women have seen a steady uptick in their employment –– but while men are still digging themselves out of the hole, women have surpassed their pre-recession rate.

“They have been coming back into the labor force really really strongly,” said Martha Gimbel, research director of the Hiring Lab at Indeed.
This is in part because women have continued the long-term pattern of having children later in life. Although the “motherhood penalty” has historically made it difficult for women to come back into the workforce after having children, the tight labor market is giving them more opportunities. It allows them to bargain for what they need to balance work and family, making it easier for them to join the workforce.
“The shift towards women having children later is leading to women experiencing shorter labor force interruptions and being more financially prepared to balance the demands of childcare and careers,” said Julia Pollak, labor economist at ZipRecruiter. “We are seeing a shift towards greater gender balance in previously male-dominated occupations, even in management, and that is shrinking the gender earnings gap somewhat.”
Pollak said employers are having to adjust to the delay in first births. ZipRecruiter has seen an increase in job postings that mention reimbursement for training, work from home, flexible schedules, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. These options are especially beneficial to stay-at-home parents who want to return to work but find their skills and experience aren’t relevant in today’s labor market.
For women who didn’t take Nivelle’s route and delay having children, it can be more difficult to enter or reenter the labor force. Xin Hamilton, vice president of Marketing at Boss Audio Systems, has found this to be the case.
Hamilton, who came to the U.S. from China as an international student, landed her first job after she graduated from college. Within the first year and half, she got married, then when she was 23, she had her first child.
Working after having children has been challenging for Hamilton. She’s noticed that she can’t work outside of regular work hours, and that company rules about how much people can work from home often have no exceptions for people with children.
“Some people just don’t understand how hard being a parent and working and being a female leader is,” Hamilton said.
The age of these first-time mothers is significantly impacted by their level of education, with those with college degrees having children almost six years later than those without. So while college-educated women are able to jump into the workforce in today’s tight labor market, it’s not the same for those without college degrees.
Still, educational achievement is playing a major role in women’s decision to delay having children. Young women are actually far more likely than young men to get bachelor degrees, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found.
Jessica Milli, a study director at the institute, said the passing of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 –– which protected people from sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities –– opened more doors for women. But men also have a much easier time getting good jobs without going to college.
“Occupational segregation is still a very present factor in our labor force,” Milli said. “There are a lot more good paying jobs –– jobs that are typically done by men –– that don’t require skills investment in terms of education.”
Coupling that with the crippling cost of higher education means more men are opting out of pursuing higher degrees.
Experts are also pointing to people delaying marriage to explain the delay in first births.
A women who is married is more likely to have a child than an unmarried one, Pew Research Center found. The median age at first marriage was 27 for women in 2014 compared to 20 for women in 1960.
The need for the labor market to adjust to women having children later will likely continue, because the demand for women in the workforce isn’t going anywhere.
“If you look at the jobs that we are projected to add, jobs that are predominantly female are projected to grow nearly twice as fast as jobs that are predominantly male,” Gimbel said. She added that this could mean even more women will be joining the labor force.
Looking ahead, it doesn’t look like millennial women’s age of first births will change anytime soon.
“Given the long-term trends set, most experts would say it seems unlikely that age at first-birth is going to do down,” Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, said.
For women like Nivelle, however, it could substantially change their experience in the workplace, with more opportunities for upward mobility and more benefits.
“If we move towards having more family-friendly workplace policies like paid leave and flexible scheduling … we might see more women staying in the labor force, more equal caregiving responsibilities between women and men,” Milli said. As a result, they may see their earnings increase and, eventually, “we would move towards more gender equality in the workforce.”