If you are working and have plans to have children one day, you have probably already looked around your organisation at other parents and drawn some conclusions about how parenthood might change your career.

For many, parenthood is one of the most joyous and life-enriching experiences. However, couples should be cautious not to sleepwalk into the decision to become parents without first being aware of the probable impact of parenthood on a mother’s career and earnings, and a partner’s opportunity to share care with their partner. Knowledge is power – use this insight to predict the challenges that may arise and work out how to mitigate their impact on how you want to combine both of your careers with parenthood’s shared role.

Parenthood Is the First Time Many Millennials Will Experience Gender Bias at Work

In our experience, millennials are far less likely to experience gender bias in their early careers than previous generations. Women are successfully getting ahead and, in some cases, overtaking men in education and early careers. The gender pay gap just isn’t there when you’re in your twenties. It’s later in your career when it starts to show up. It is understandable why many millennials don’t predict that this position will change when they become parents.

We often find in coaching conversations that parenthood is the first-time millennial women experience gender bias, in the form of the “motherhood penalty”. This term is used by researchers to describe the impact that motherhood has on women’s earnings and career progression over the long-term. This topic is so pressing that Netflix released a 20-minute ‘explainer’ programme discussing it, highlighting how the persistence of the gender pay gap in today’s world ultimately comes down to women having children.

Explained | Why Women Are Paid Less | FULL EPISODE | Netflix

The “Motherhood Penalty”: Fact Checked

Of course, motherhood comes with many advantages, but a higher income is not one of them! Motherhood is one of the most significant factors still propping open the gender pay gap – contributing to the lack of women on boards and in senior leadership roles.

In Europe, first-time mums see a 30% drop in pay after giving birth for the first time – and this never recovers. A decade after having a child, a women’s earnings plateau to around 20% below the original level she was earning before becoming a parent. In the USA, mothers get paid a meagre 71 cents for every dollar received by fathers. Longer-term, the average pension pot for a 65-year-old woman in the UK is just one-fifth of that for the average 65-year-old man.

Mothers don’t just take a hit to the purse. Women start falling behind men in seniority and their probability of being promoted just after their first child’s birth. Even in Sweden, a country with some of the most progressive policies to support working parents, men are twice as likely to become chief executives than women.

How Did We Get Here

Women typically change their work pattern in response to having children. They work shorter hours, often in roles that offer greater flexibility in exchange for less pay and take more time off in the five years after their first child is born. This pattern is because most of the care burden typically falls to one parent, and in different-sex couples, it often falls to the woman.

Legislative policy affects how we approach work and home responsibilities; extended periods of paid parental leave increase mothers’ chance to return to work but decrease pay and promotions over the long-term. This outcome is because long breaks typically span critical points when many others are preparing themselves for advancement. In our experience, flexible working is good at keeping women in the workplace, but long-term, it’s not so good for career progression.

Even in today’s modern society where millennial men say that they want to share work and care equally with their partner, gendered attitudes still exist. In a nationwide survey, 46% said they believed a woman becomes less committed to her job after having a child. When asked about specific childcare tasks, men reported that nine out ten are mostly their partner’s responsibility. Dads and partners want to care but struggle with a lack of parental leave, with 75% taking two weeks or less.

If mothers and not their partners use policies like paid leave and taking on the added work at home after having children, the motherhood penalty will continue. The only way to stop these gendered repercussions of having a child is to give people equivalent shares of parental leave and encourage them to take it equally.

What Does This Mean for You?

  1. Model the impact of any change to work arrangements on earnings and pension – having a successful career is rather like driving in the fast lane of a motorway. Having a family doesn’t mean you have to come off the motorway – you might change lanes or weave traffic. It is leaving the motorway altogether that does the most damage to a woman’s career, earnings and pension. Even if childcare costs equate to not earning a salary for several years, carry on working as an investment in your longer-term earnings and career progression.
  2. Discuss life and career goals with your partner – how will you prioritise your careers and divide family commitments when you become parents? Focus the discussion on work and life goals rather than just practical planning. Use our Change 4 Good quiz to come up with a list of priorities you agree on and use these as guiding principles to help your decision making. You’ll find it easier to navigate clashes if you are both working toward the same goals. Parents flying solo will find it helpful to have this discussion with people in their support network.
  3. Counter unhelpful cultural assumptions – don’t assume it will be the mother that steps back from her career to manage childcare responsibilities. Research shows that gay women divide tasks more equitably than either gay men or different sex couples, who tend to fall back on traditional gender stereotypes unconsciously.
  4. Explore ways to share parental leave with your partner in countries where employer/country policy allows for an extended period of leave. In our experience, the most helpful approach to reduce the impact on a woman’s career is when the mother takes the first portion and the partner takes the final portion when she goes back to work.

What to Watch Out for When You Have Children

  1. People may start to make assumptions about your career aspirations due to stereotypes. You need to be super clear about what you want for your career. If you begin to feel “mummy-tracked” – such as being put on less critical projects – call it out! Bring to your line manager’s attention the fact that motherhood hasn’t dented your commitment to your career.
  2. Working too hard to compensate for gender bias can be exhausting and so when your energy is low, limit your focus to the job at hand and wait until you feel more rested and positive to look further ahead at the next steps.
  3. Look after yourself – you’ll have more balls to keep in the air. Self-care isn’t indulgent. If that goes, then everything goes.

With Planning You Can Have the Career and Life You Want

Mothers often joke with us about the conspiracy of silence that surrounds childbirth. Thankfully, mums-to-be receive antenatal advice on what to expect, enabling them to prepare for all eventualities and plan the birth they want. Think about your career in the same way. Acknowledge the facts and plan for the life and career you both want.

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