A graphic for the definition of Motherhood Penalty

What the Motherhood Penalty is and why it is important

The Motherhood Penalty describes a subtle form of workplace discrimination faced by women who decide to have children. Extensive research conducted by Professor Correll at Stamford University concludes that mothers are judged to a significantly harsher standard than men. They are considered less attractive candidates for new roles and more likely to have lower salaries. Correll found that the pay gap between mothers and women without children is more significant than between men and women. Women without children are twice as likely to be called for an interview compared with mothers with the same qualifications and professional experience. 

When starting a family, the anticipation that they could take time off work impacts women financially and professionally, as prospects for progression often take a substantial hit. They may be overlooked when decisions are made regarding leading on projects or awarding promotions. A 2018 study of more than 51,000 participants across 18 countries highlighted the lingering prominence of the idea that when women work, their children and families suffer. Conversely, research quoted in Forbes showed that nearly ¾ of men and women agree that women are penalised for starting families, whilst men are not.  

Societal expectations still put pressure on women to choose between work and family as if it is a binary choice. Still, when they return to work, they face an array of challenges perpetuated by the stigma that women can’t be committed workers alongside being good parents. Men don’t face this bind; according to a study from 2019, we tend to see men as ‘caring’ fathers when they talk about children in the workplace, but mothers as ‘distracted’.

A potential solution to reducing the effects of the Motherhood Penalty is encouraging and supporting men to take a more significant portion of parental leave. Companies such as the Columbian organisation Grupos Argos, voted the number 1 female-friendly company by Forbes in 2022, offer substantial paternity support. If companies worldwide opted for more equitable support for new parents, this may help shift the pressures on mothers, help keep talented women in the workforce and normalise increased parental leave for men.  

Men often face pressure to be present in offices after the birth of their child, particularly if they are at mid manager or higher seniority levels. However, research indicates that where men take 2 weeks or more of paternity leave they have closer relationships with their children because of that initial bonding time. It was also found that paternity leave of around 4 weeks showed positive links to lower divorce rates between heterosexual parents. In countries such as America where 4/5 of parents can’t access paid parental leave this can be additionally challenging. However entrenching the ‘women as mother/carer and men as breadwinner’ stereotype is damaging to both women and men.

The Motherhood Penalty bias can impact all women, even if they are not planning or able to have children, simply because they can. However, it is the women that do who face the full force of the Motherhood Penalty.  

Related Concepts

Second Generational Bias

Double Bind

Related Research

ECC have summarised research published through MIT Sloan School of Management titled ‘“Potential” and the Gender Promotion Gap‘ which is linked to the Motherhood Penalty.  

Related Assets

See ECC’s ‘Why there are so few women in leadership roles for a deeper dive into the impacts of the Motherhood Penalty

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