5 Infuriating Facts About The Motherhood Penalty At Work

Society still has a long way to go until being a worker is compatible with being a mother.
It's 2019, and working mothers are still not treated as a full member of the labor force.
10'000 Hours via Getty Images
It's 2019, and working mothers are still not treated as a full member of the labor force.

The majority of moms in America are working. Seventy percent, in fact. But a large body of research has found that the gift of a child comes at an unfair, heavy price to their careers. Sociologists call it the “motherhood penalty.”

Here is evidence-based research of how the motherhood penalty can play out for working moms in their careers.

1. You’re forecasted to be paid less for each child you have, but fathers will be paid more.

Having a kid can boost a father’s earning power, while it takes away some of the mom’s. Women lose 4% of hourly earnings on average for each child they have, while men earn 6% more, research group Third Way found, using decades of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. This gap in earnings persisted even after controlling for factors like family structure or family-friendly job characteristics.

Why do fathers get a bump in pay? Michelle Budig, the sociology professor who authored the report, opined that “Fatherhood may serve as a signal to potential employers for greater maturity, commitment, or stability.”

But working mothers are not seen in that same favorable light. And mothers with the least economic advantages paid the highest price ― researchers found that low-income mothers got hit by the wage penalty the hardest. Meanwhile, high-income fathers who were married white college graduates got the biggest wage bonus from becoming a parent.

2. You can be married and childless and still face a motherhood penalty.

Are you a thirty-something married woman with no plans to have children? Even if you do not want or plan to have children, your employer may still think you do and penalize you accordingly, economists found for a hiring bias study. The researchers sent out 9,000 fictional job applications for part-time secretarial and accounting jobs in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, where it is standard to include marital status and children on resumes. Each applicant was listed as 30 years old, but varying marital and motherhood statuses changed the outcome of callbacks.

Married women with older kids had the highest rate of callbacks, while married but childless applicants had fewer callbacks compared to single but childless applicants.

Why are working moms with older kids preferred over new working moms? The researchers suggested that women with older kids signal that they are not having more children and therefore “convey low pregnancy risk and low costs associated with child-care chores.“

When you seek a part-time job, you are signaling a desire for flexible hours, but employers may also make assumptions about your availability based on the possibility you will get pregnant.

“Our conjecture is that employers consider childless but married women at particular ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant,” the study’s authors wrote. “We interpret these findings as presence of substantial hiring discrimination based on realized and expected fertility for part-time jobs ― a possibly surprising result, since these jobs are typically meant to be particularly family-friendly.”

3. You can be judged for appearing less committed to your job than to your child.

Hiring is filled with first impressions built by resumes listing what you have done and what you can do. But mentioning that you are a mother in the hiring process can lead to assumptions about your commitment to being available for work.

In a 2007 study, researchers Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard and In Paik found that fictional job applications received equivalent positive reviews when parental status was not mentioned. But when the job application mentioned motherhood, those rating the prospective employees “offered mothers lower salaries and were less likely to hire them because they believed mothers were less competent and less committed to their jobs, a form of discrimination called ‘status-based discrimination,’” Correll wrote.

4. You can be judged for appearing more committed to your job than to your child.

After you return to work from having a baby, you may also encounter expectations that you should prioritize family over work. If you go against this expectation by showing commitment to your job, you may face backlash for going against the traditional expectation of being a mother first, a worker second, according to another study by Benard and Correll published in the journal Gender & Society in 2010.

The pair recruited 260 participants and asked them to judge job applications by highly successful candidates for a mid-management position. The applicants’ professional profiles were similar, but their genders were not. Accomplished mothers were seen to be significantly less likable and less committed than their identical male counterparts who were fathers.

“Women with children seem to face a ‘double-bind,’” Benard and Correll wrote. “Either they are perceived warm and likable, but not competent and committed enough, or, even if they unambiguously show competence and commitment, they are penalized for breaking with traditional gender stereotypes as they are perceived as less warm and more interpersonally hostile.”

5. Managers may be less likely to grant you flextime, even if they grant that benefit to fathers.

After having a child, parents often have to take on the added demands of child care. Flexible work arrangements can be a win-win for everyone: When employees get more control over their own schedule, they are happier, which in turn can lead to higher retention and engagement.

But again, gender bias is evident. In a 2014 study of over 600 workers, sociologist Christin Munsch analyzed how people reacted to flextime requests between a fictional employee and a human resources representative. When a man requested to work from home for child-care reasons, almost 70% of the participants said they would approve the request. But when that same request came from a woman, that number dropped to about 57%. When men made the child-care request, only about 3% of participants found the man to be not committed to his job, but when a woman did the same, about 16% found her to be not committed to her work.

Traditional expectations of motherhood are still being used to judge women. “Today, we think of women’s responsibilities as including paid labor and domestic obligations, but we still regard breadwinning as men’s primary responsibility and we feel grateful if men contribute in the realm of child care or to other household tasks,” Munch said.


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