What The Motherhood Penalty Is, And How To Combat It

A study of 165,000 employees in multiple U.S. companies found a strong tie between the low number of women in management and the motherhood penalty.


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What The Motherhood Penalty Is, And How To Combat It

Employers claim they’re committed to workers and their families. They set out to show it by offering paid leave, extended maternal and parental benefits, and work-from-home (WFH) opportunities. But despite what employers say and do, research shows that bias against working mothers persists.

There are workplaces that consciously or subconsciously “penalize” working women who are or are about to become, mothers. It’s what’s called the “motherhood penalty.” In short, because they are parents, working mothers are denied:

  • Competitive wages
  • Promotions
  • Career opportunities

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an advocate for the equity and education of women and girls, employers view parenthood for men, on the other hand, as a positive employee attribute.

Workplace myths about motherhood

Old stereotypes about women and working women, in particular, fuel many of the myths about today’s working mothers.

The motherhood penalty is based on the belief that working mothers aren’t as competent or productive as others in the labor force and that they’re not as serious about their careers. This misconception, called “maternal wall bias,” is heightened when working women go on maternity leave or take extended time off to care for a newborn.

After I became a mother, I learned how much I could really get done in five minutes!

Ximena Hartsock, Ph.D., founder of BuildWithin, a company that identifies, trains, and manages apprentices in technology, commented for Workest that not only are working mothers seen as “less productive” than other employees but they’re also viewed as “more emotional and less dependable” – perceptions she called “complete myths.”

“After I became a mother, I learned how much I could really get done in five minutes! When a woman becomes a mother, she acquires new skills such as multitasking, attention to detail, decision making, anticipation, and planning,” wrote Hartsock. “As children grow, mothers learn new skills such as:

  • Personal coaching
  • Mediation
  • Project management
  • Scheduling”

Pregnant managers, like working mothers, are seen as less competent and disinterested in their careers. But they’re also viewed as more emotional, irrational, and lacking authority than other female managers.

How mothers are penalized

Studies show that myths and assumptions about working mothers set the stage for hiring, career advancement, and pay discrimination.

Hiring bias

Research shows that hiring managers are less likely to hire mothers than women without children. And when they do hire mothers, they offer them lower pay.

In what’s called a 2007 landmark laboratory study of the motherhood penalty involving subjects acting as either hiring managers or jobseekers, researchers found that:

  • Hiring managers were twice as likely to call female applicants without children for an interview than similarly qualified female applicants with children.
  • Undergraduate students who were charged with examining all applicants and making hiring suggestions recommended only 47% of the mother applicants, compared with 84% of the childless applicants.
  • The students rated the mothers in the experiment as less competent than the childless female candidates.
  • The students recommended $11,000 less in starting salaries for the candidates who were mothers than the childless female candidates.

Male applicants who were fathers fared slightly better than men without children. No other disparities for male applicants occurred.

Career obstacles

When boss’ stereotypes or assumptions about working mothers are reflected in performance evaluations, those women are frequently denied:

  • Promotions
  • Opportunities for advancement
  • More challenging assignments
  • Training

The 2016 Gender Equity report by Visier, an HR-focused tech firm, cited the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, also known as “The Manager Divide,” as a large part of the motherhood penalty.

A study of 165,000 employees in multiple U.S. companies found a strong tie between the low number of women in management and the motherhood penalty. The study noted that the age range customarily associated with career advancement – 25 to 40 – correlated with women’s childbearing ages (25 to 34), when many women are most likely to leave the workforce.

The caregiver’s dilemma

Studies also show that hiring teams, managers, and even coworkers regularly assume that when mothers are at home, they’re spending much of their time caring for their children. The reason is likely because women remain the chief “cook and bottlewasher” in their households.

A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that even among working from home (WFH) mothers and fathers during the pandemic, mothers said they had 36% of their home’s childcare responsibilities, while fathers had just 16%.

Children usually require less care by age five and entering school. But 39-year-old mothers still have childcare demands, causing them to miss peak career opportunities.

Pay disparities

The most significant motherhood penalty impact is on working mothers’ earnings. Career obstructions and childcare demands lead to substantial losses in pay.

Working women continue to lag behind men in wages. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), women still only earn 75 cents on each dollar men earn. Therefore, working mothers are further short-changed. With the pay gap, they lose $1,275 a month, or $15,300 a year.

NWLC also reported that the unemployment rate for white working mothers doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 3.5% in 2019 to 7.5% in 2020. Rates were even more disparate for Black (10.3%), Latina (10.4%), and Asian (8.1%) mothers.

In addition, managers reportedly are more likely to:

  • Offer working mothers a lower salary than women without children.
  • Offer working fathers a “fatherhood bonus” that increases their earnings.
  • Rehire a laid-off employee instead of calling back a working mother who was on leave.

Working mothers are even penalized according to the number of children they have. Third Way, a think tank, reported that working mothers lose 4% of their earnings for every child they have. The reverse is true for working fathers, who gain 6% in wages with each child.

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Working mothers’ value

Workplaces undervalue working mothers through the motherhood penalty, despite the fact that 71% of them are in the labor force.

These statistics demonstrate the challenges that undermine working mothers’ value:

  • 41% are the sole breadwinners of their families.
  • Since working mothers are more likely to take time out to care for their families than fathers, 43% have gone without pay for at least a year – a rate that’s twice that of men.
  • More than 50% of mothers who identify as homemakers say they would look for a job if childcare wasn’t so costly.
  • 23% of working mothers admitted turning down a promotion because they were juggling work and parental duties.

In comments about the motherhood penalty for Workest, Joanna Stephens, the founder of a parenting site called Shesyourfriend.com, and a mother of two, advises working mothers to know their own worth and be ready to walk away from an undesirable employment situation.

Stephens recalled when a company offered her 20% less than the salary stated in the job description, a situation she said she also experienced with other employers.

“If [a job is with] your dream company, negotiate your salary; otherwise, be prepared to decline a position and find something more suitable,” said Stephens.

Battling the motherhood penalty

Leslie Forde, CEO and founder at Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs LLC, told Workest via email that business leaders can reduce the motherhood penalty by:

  • Scheduling team meetings at inclusive times for working mothers.
  • Avoid holding meetings early in the morning, at mealtimes, and late afternoon or evening when parents – especially those lucky enough to have reliable childcare – are dropping off or picking up their children at daycare facilities.

“Now that many organizations are hybrid or remote, [employers must] be thoughtful about when in-person meetings are necessary or important, “said Forde, adding that “companies should give parents enough time to make childcare arrangements and travel plans to in-person meetings.”

Ridding the workplace of archaic, misguided perceptions about working mothers is critical to their professional and personal growth and wellbeing.

Additional suggestions include:

  • Developing consistent practices to re-onboard and support mothers returning from parental leave. Ask parents what their current schedules and flexibility needs are instead of assuming that their workload, travel situation, or plans will be the same from day to day.
  • Using the ‘schedule send’ electronic function to assign important work projects to off-site parents during business hours. Mothers, in particular, often miss out on choice assignments and opportunities when they can’t monitor email or other electronic communication at night, on weekends, and in early mornings as often as childless coworkers.

Hartsock said employers can benefit from having working mothers on staff by embracing the confident, capable skills they bring to the workplace and assigning them work that allows them to shine.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

Finally, discrimination in the workplace is illegal. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 makes it unlawful to deny pregnant women:

  • Employment
  • Promotions
  • Assignments
  • Benefits
  • Training
  • Other job-related options

or to

  • Fire
  • Demote
  • Punish them

On May 14, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which outlaws practices that deny reasonable accommodation to people impacted by pregnancy, childbirth, or other medical conditions. The bill needs a U.S. Senate majority vote to become law.

The takeaway

Employers can help diffuse the motherhood penalty by updating their policies and procedures to provide working mothers with job support and financial equity. Ridding the workplace of archaic, misguided perceptions about working mothers is critical to their professional and personal growth and wellbeing.

Unlike most industrialized nations, the U.S. doesn’t have a federal paid leave policy, allowing parents, especially mothers, to take family leave without losing pay. However, more, primarily large employers, now offer paid leave, despite the lack of a federal mandate.


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