“The Motherhood Penalty”: How Women’s Careers Are Hurt When They Have Children

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“The Motherhood Penalty”: How Women’s Careers Are Hurt When They Have Children

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Welcome back to ‘There’s A Word For That’: a series that names the experiences that can change the course of your career.

Given that the majority of new fathers that say they want to be equal coparents, you might think that men and women would have an equal shot at advancing in the workplace after having kids. But in reality, when women become mothers, they experience significant hits to their income and work opportunities, while men who become fathers experience a career boost.

There’s a word (or, a few words) for this phenomenon:

The Motherhood Penalty and The Fatherhood Bonus

Researchers identified these terms after finding that working mothers fare far worse than their male counterparts in a range of ways, from what they’re paid to how they’re perceived.

A study quantifying the motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus found that after controlling for experience, education, marital status and hours worked:

  • For every child a woman has, her income decreases by 4%
  • The average mother makes between 5 and 10% less than she would have otherwise
  • Men’s incomes go up by 6% when they become fathers

The reasons for this dichotomy are complex, so here’s a breakdown of what we know about it:

We Hold Mothers to Double Standards

One of the cultural myths damaging mothers is the idea that they’re less productive at work.

In one study, participants indicated that they perceive moms as less competent and committed to their work than men orwomen without children (despite ample evidence to the contrary).

  • Mothers were held to higher expectations, were less likely to be hired and promoted, and were recommended lower salaries.
  • On the flip side, fathers were considered more committed than childless men, and offered higher starting salaries. Fathers were also held to lower expectations, being cut more slack when showing up late for example.

This double-standard begins even before a woman has a child.

As the researchers explain, “visibly pregnant women are judged as being less committed to their jobs, less dependable, less authoritative, more emotional, and more irrational than otherwise equal, non-pregnant female managers.” This might explain why the number of women who report feeling worried about telling their bosses they’re pregnant nearly doubled in five years.

Another common belief is that mothers have fundamentally different priorities, but this also fails to bear out in research.

A study of Harvard Business School graduates found that both men and women valued family more than work. Despite this, people treat parents differently, giving men the message that parenthood shouldn’t affect their work, while encouraging women to take a step back.

“When high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement,” write the study authors.

When mothers face such deeply ingrained double standards, how can we expect them to keep up with their peers, let alone get ahead?

Women Lose Ground in the Labor Force While Shouldering the Demands of Unpaid Labor

While the overwhelming majority of mothers in the U.S. take some form of maternity leave, more than three-quarters of fathers return to work less than a week after their children are born. In addition, many more women than men will go on to scale back their hours or to leave the workforce entirely to accommodate the demands of caregiving. This discrepancy creates a dynamic wherein women miss out on promotions and opportunities while their male colleagues forge ahead.

When the added caregiving demands of the pandemic pushed disproportionately more women out of the labor force, the gender gap grew even deeper. And the problem has persisted even as the employment landscape recovers. As of early 2022, men had regained triple the lost jobs that women had.

This time away from labor force has a lasting effect on women’s careers.

In an analysis of women’s earnings over a fifteen year period, researchers found that women who took just one year away from work had 39 percent lower annual earnings than those who worked throughout the time period studied.

While taking time way from the paid labor force also affects men, women’s earnings losses are almost always greater.

In a survey asking people about how taking parental leave affected their careers, nearly twice as many women said that it’d had a negative impact.

One can imagine that if the ratio of men and women who took time off to care for children was closer, dads wouldn’t maintain such a professional advantage over their female counterparts. At minimum, we could move closer to a place in which American dads are able and willing to take paid paternity leave on par with the global average of sixteen weeks. But since the U.S. currently has no federal paid family leave policy and few companies offer much, if any, paid paternity leave, it’s not hard to see why few dads take time off for children, even before accounting for cultural stigma around doing so.

Women Still Do More Parenting At Home

As we’ve written about before, women do more unpaid labor like cleaning, caregiving and household management, and it plays a big role in exacerbating the Motherhood Penalty. A 2017 report found that American moms did more than twice as much childcare as dads. Much like with job losses, the pandemic worsened this gap. On a global level, men did three times less childcare than women during the pandemic.

But to talk only about labor division between co-parents would be to leave out a portion of mothers who are even more disadvantaged, which is to say, single moms. Roughly a quarter of children in the U.S. are raised by single-parent homes and of these families, nearly 80 percent are headed by single mothers. For many of these women, parenthood brings with it nonstop labor with few or no breaks. The fact that there are so many more women than men in this boat intensifies broader economic gender gaps.

The Penalty Hurts Women In Poverty Most

Unfortunately, like with many forms of discrimination, the Motherhood Penalty hurts women most who are already disadvantaged. Research shows that women with low-wage jobs are more likely to reduce work hours or experience job turnover to accommodate their families. They typically have less autonomy and flexibility at their jobs, making it harder to juggle the unpredictable needs of children such as illnesses or gaps in childcare.

For moms of preschoolers, the penalties of motherhood are almost five times as great for the lowest earners than they are for the highest earners.

With the loss of reproductive rights in large swaths of the United States, understanding the impacts that parenting has on women is more important than ever. Our society punishes mothers who had children by choice, who have supportive spouses, and were already successful in their careers. Imagine how harmful motherhood can be for someone who did not want or plan to become a parent, doesn’t have a partner to help, and had precarious employment before becoming pregnant?

Whether we have children or not, we will almost certainly work with or employ the services of women who do, and it would benefit everyone to understand how our shared prejudices limit their potential.

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, content producer and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how our broader culture impacts everyday life and questions of why we are the way we are.

Image: MoMo Productions/DigitalVision via GettyImages

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