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What Does The Motherhood Penalty Say About Our Views On Working Women?

  • A significant difference in pay and substantial loss in earnings exists between women who return to work after taking time out to focus on childcare relative to women who do not have children. Sociologists have coined this phenomenon the Motherhood Penalty. 
  • The uncontrolled gender pay gap for female parents is significantly large. Female parents receive $0.74 for every 1-dollar male parents receive. When all factors are equal, excluding gender, each female parent receives $0.98 for every one dollar paid to a male equivalent. 
  • Despite changes to legislation and advancements in several areas of gender equality, working mothers are still penalised (women with children can expect a 7.9% lower starting salary than women without children).  

What is the Motherhood Penalty? 

The term Motherhood Penalty was coined by sociologists and based on the observed disparity in earnings and career progression between women with children and those without children.   

The Motherhood Penalty contributes substantially to the gender pay gap between men and women in the labor market, yet this issue extends beyond gender. There is actually a wider gap between women with and without children than between all working men and women.  

There is also an additional penalty for women with more than one child (the per-child wage penalty). The Motherhood Penalty strengthens the gender pay gap to such a large extent that it should be receiving as much attention as the pay gap itself.  


The Payscale report found a substantial gap in earnings between women with children and those without. Women without children earn $0.88 for every dollar a man without children makes. Comparatively, women with children earn $0.77 for each dollar a man with children earns. 

Research indicates that women without children are definitely at an advantage in the labor market. Mothers are perceived to be 12.1% less committed to their jobs than women without children.  

They are also six times less likely to be hired – compared to just over three times less likely to be hired than men without children. This proves once again that women who do not have children have the upper-hand and suggests that the issue is wider than gender.  

What’s behind this bias towards moms? 

Despite advances in gender equality, the existence of the Motherhood Penalty indicates that there is still much progress to be made. Modern research has revealed that simply being a mom is the main factor for women to experience wage bias. A woman who faces additional types of discrimination alongside motherhood (race, socio-economic background and level of qualifications, for instance) will often be subject to an intensified penalty.   

A research paper examining the issue of children and gender inequality provides further evidence of motherhood being the primary reason for some women to receive lower wages. After the first child arrives, women fall immediately behind men (and women without children) in terms of occupational level and prospects for advancement in their careers.  

According to this research, there is also a theory known as “intergenerational transmission.” The theory is based on the idea that wage penalties can be inherited so that women whose mothers experienced the Motherhood Penalty are more likely to be subjected to it themselves.  

The way in which society views the relationship between a mother and child is another crucial factor to consider. There is an ongoing stigma around being a mother of small children whilst working full-time.  

The old-fashioned notion of the mother who stays at home being best for the child’s development reinforces discrimination against working moms. These women can be penalised for being perceived as more committed to their work than their family.  

As a consequence of breaking traditional norms, full-time mothers might be viewed as hostile and devoid of feelings. It should therefore come as no surprise that career opportunities are frequently afforded to less qualified employees over working moms who are better qualified for the role. 

Where do men fit into the picture? 

It is clear that career interruptions undermine women’s prospects more than men who take time out from their careers. Only 18% of men who take significant time off to look after their children reported that it was damaging to their careers (compared to 32% of women). Millennial men are, however, entering the labor market with a different set of expectations.  

60% of both men and women aged 18 to 32 believe that having children will affect their career. Comparatively, men and women from the same age group who already have children differed significantly in their views.  

19% of dads and 58% of moms aged 18 to 32 stated that having children affected their career. This says something about the reality versus the expectations of parenthood and tells us that nothing much has changed for millennials where the Motherhood Penalty is concerned.  

Stereotypes of working mothers being less committed and less focused on work are still prevalent in our society. A Modern Family Index survey found that 75% of employees believe that working fathers are more dedicated to their careers than working mothers (only 59%).  

In the UK, the TUC has reported that working fathers receive 21% more in earnings than men without children (working full-time). Instead of a Motherhood Penalty, these fathers are awarded with a Fatherhood Bonus! Women paid less for each consecutive child they have, yet men are paid more.  

Sociologists attribute this discriminatory practice to the fact that working fathers are often portrayed as being more mature, committed and stable in a way that working mothers are not (old-fashioned stereotypes interacting with discriminatory views of working women yet again). 

 Even the way women who talk about their children in the office are compared to men is completely contradictory (women are distracted and men are caring when they talk about their children).  

How does the Motherhood Penalty relate to the future of work? 

Most of the barriers encountered by working mothers are based on old-fashioned notions of who and what a mother should be. 84% of Americans believe that working mothers in senior positions make businesses more successful and 91% believe that working mothers possess unique leadership skills – yet 82% of working mothers still struggle to advance into executive-level positions. 

Organizations such as Pregnant Then Screwed (UK) help women understand their rights and actively campaign for change. There is an acknowledgement amongst support groups that working women currently face more obstacles to career advancement than ever before.  

The Motherhood Penalty can start when a woman announces her marriage through to pregnancy (we’ve all read reports about pregnant women being fired). But the worst time to be a working mother is once parental leave has ended.  

Companies are increasingly looking for more feminine traits in their employees – such as the ability to nurture, collaborate and display emotional intelligence. It makes no sense to discriminate against a cohort that can bring so many of these skills into the workplace (in addition to time-management, organizational and communication skills that parents often possess).  

The current situation is not just bad news for women with children – it negatively affects entire families and their ability to prosper. The Motherhood Penalty sits uncomfortably alongside a declining birth rate and concerns about climate change (already dissuading the next generation of employees from having children).  

State legislators and corporate leaders will have no choice but to make policies that render having children a much more attractive option for the next generation of working men and women.  

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