What is the motherhood penalty?

AboveBoard | Jun 01, 2022

Uncover the motherhood wage gap, change the narrative.

You’ve heard of the wage gap between men and women. But did you know that working mothers bear the brunt of this disparity?

That’s right. Women’s pay is shown to actually decrease once they become mothers. This phenomenon is what sociologists call “the motherhood penalty.” Although employed women aged 25 to 29 “recently reached earning parity with their male counterparts,” Sociology Compass, that all changes once women transition to motherhood. There’s a direct connection between women becoming mothers and a drop in their labor force participation and earnings, according to the peer-reviewed journal. On the other hand, men often experience a wage increase once they become fathers. 

“The financial impacts of parenthood—a ‘motherhood penalty’ paired with a ‘fatherhood premium’—are increasingly responsible for the remaining gender wage gap,” the research shows. 

Recognizing the existence of the motherhood penalty is just the first step in supporting working women. From there, we can use the information we’ve learned to advocate for and contribute to work environments that support women and other underrepresented executives. 

Analyzing the motherhood wage penalty

Let’s take a closer look at the data. On average, the motherhood wage penalty means a 15 percent decrease of income per child under age 5, according to a report from The Century Foundation. “For Black and Native American women, the motherhood penalty is 20 percent—nearly twice that for white women (10.2 percent),” per the October 2021 report. “For Latinx women it’s 18 percent and for Asian women it’s 13 percent.” 

These cuts in women’s earnings can result from multiple factors, including reduced work hours, fewer promotions or raises, and leaving the workforce altogether. 

“The notion of a motherhood pay gap is generally taken to indicate either productivity differences between mothers and non-mothers or active discrimination against mothers,” the United Nations’ International Labour Organization wrote in a 2015 report

“Sociological work on the motherhood pay gap suggests that the stereotyping of mothers and the associated force of societal expectations institutionalizes the notion that mothers are less productive, such that the outcome is a reflection of societal values and expectations rather than a function of actual productivity capacities.”

These preconceived notions and stereotypes about motherhood hurt working mothers in tangible ways. In an interview with the World Economic Forum, author of “The Motherhood Penalty: How to stop motherhood being the kiss of death for your career” Joeli Brearley outlines some of the systematic and societal barriers that keep women from having children and a career. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination can take many forms, according to Brearley, including demotions, bullying and harassment, or even firing. 

“In all of these countries, the stories are devastating, and they strip women of their confidence, of their economic empowerment and that should be something that we're all very worried about,” Brearley said.

Policy proposals to combat the motherhood penalty

Pay parity for working mothers matters. It’s just one reflection of how our culture and workplaces value (or do not value) women and their families.

“It is quite clear that the difference in the market behavior of women in the first place is closely related to combining careers and families — the difficulty of having accessibility to doing both is really what generates the motherhood penalty,” said Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University speaking to The 19th News about some of his latest research. “Anything that addresses that more fundamental problem is going to be helpful for women in general, but for those, in particular, who were affected by this crisis.”  

Here are some ways in which workplaces and communities can support working women while combating the motherhood wage penalty: 

Accessible, affordable childcare options

The average monthly cost for licensed child care in the U.S. starts at $889 per month, according to data from the Center for American Progress. These high costs push many women out of the workforce, especially in cases in which a paycheck barely offsets the cost of childcare.  

“Parents cannot work without childcare, it's social infrastructure. We know that investing in childcare is an investment in the economy,” author Brearley said, pointing to companies that have invested in childcare for their employees, such as Patagonia. “PricewaterhouseCooper found that for every dollar you invest in childcare, you get at least $2 back into the wider economy.”

Flexible work arrangements 

Flexible work arrangements are one of the simplest ways to meaningfully reduce the impact of the motherhood penalty. And the COVID-19 pandemic only made such arrangements more common. Offering remote work or flexible hours can make it easier “for spouses to share domestic responsibilities and to blend their work and family life,” according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

Paid parental leave 

Workplace policies can also play a pivotal role in closing the motherhood penalty wage gap. Policies like paid parental leave or caregiving leave can give employees, especially mothers, margin to more readily achieve work-life balance. 

“Without these policies, balancing the responsibilities of work and family can be difficult — especially for mothers,” the AAUW said.

A family-friendly workplace culture

Per the International Labour Organization, “preventing and eliminating discrimination based on maternity and family responsibilities and creating a family-friendly workplace culture” can further combat the motherhood penalty. Ultimately, the policies we do or do not adopt are a reflection of our values and priorities. If we holistically value employees, including for who they are outside of the workplace, it follows that we adopt policies and promote cultures that align with this.

Join AboveBoard as we support women in the workforce

Brand-new neuroscience research suggests that motherhood can actually unlock leadership potential. Some of the latest findings reveal that new parents undergo brain changes that actually allow them to be more present, empathetic, collaborative, and more adaptive to stress, all qualities that are valuable components of executive leadership. 

It’s time to change the narrative around motherhood. Rather than penalizing employees for becoming mothers, our workplaces and culture at large ought to support mothers through these changes. As the latest research shows, these changes can bring a positive impact to women and their workplaces. In the process of supporting mothers, we’ll foster inclusive environments that makes space for employees of all seasons and walks of life. 

At AboveBoard, we're on a mission to diversify C-suites and boardrooms to include underrepresented executives of all backgrounds, including mothers. Diverse leadership includes people who mother, too. That’s why our innovative platform prioritizes access and transparency to executive leadership roles at today’s leading companies. By demystifying the executive recruiting process, we believe it’s possible to unlock opportunities for all executives.

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