The motherhood penalty refers to the negative impact becoming a mother has on the lifetime earnings of working women compared to their male colleagues. Whereas men who become fathers can actually see their earnings increase relative to their childless peers, mothers often see theirs stagnate or decline and never recover, contributing significantly to the earnings gap and wealth gap between men and women.
Responding to a recent sponsored study by Merrill Lynch and Bank of America on financial wellness issues specific to working women, Washington Examiner columnist Hadley Heath Manning objects to calling the motherhood penalty a “penalty,” arguing that it’s more of a tradeoff for women who just want to spend more time raising their children:
Among all demographic groups, who makes the most money? Married fathers. This isn’t because society values them more, but because they often make sacrifices to try to earn more to support their families. And who shares household earnings and the associated wealth accumulation with married fathers? Married mothers, of course. The term “motherhood penalty” fails to capture this. Married motherhood comes with great benefits, both financial and non-financial.
The reality is that mothers are paid less than non-mothers (and accumulate less wealth as a result) not because employers or “society” penalize us, but because, on aggregate, mothers make trade-offs that result in less money.
Manning’s argument is one we often hear from gender pay gap skeptics and critics of gender equality initiatives in the workplace. More importantly, it’s just plain wrong. Nobody expects women who freely choose to take multi-year career breaks to earn as much in their lifetimes as those who don’t.
The problem is that these choices are not always made freely, and when men and women make the same choices, the outcomes are very different.
In a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, Kate Weisshaar, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined how employers respond to applications from candidates who have taken time away from work to stay at home with their children, compared to those who are currently employed or had recently been laid off. To do so, she submitted 3,374 fictitious résumés to job listings in 50 American cities, representing these three types of applicants, and measured how many were called back for interviews or more information. Weisshaar’s findings, which she discussed at the Harvard Business Review last week, suggest a significant bias among employers against parents who take career breaks to raise children:
The results show just how heavily parents reentering the workforce are penalized for their career gap: 15.3% of the employed mothers, 9.7% of the unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers received a callback. The results were similar for fathers. While 14.6% of the employed fathers and 8.8% of unemployed fathers received a callback, only 5.4% of stay-at-home fathers did.
Put simply, stay-at-home parents were about half as likely to get a callback as unemployed parents and only one-third as likely as employed parents.
To better understand this apparent bias against stay-at-home parents, Weisshaar also conducted a national survey in which respondents were asked to evaluate fictitious résumés that differed only in whether the applicant was continuously employed, had been laid off, or had taken time off to take care of children. Respondents, she found, “viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job, and—the biggest penalty—less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants.”
Faced with a large number of women in STEM fields who exit the workforce mid-career, many employers in the tech sector have been looking for ways to bring these women back, both to address overall skills shortages and to improve diversity and inclusion. These women are typically mothers who leave their jobs either to devote their time exclusively to raising children or in response to workplace cultures that don’t allow them to balance family and career; though they may not intend to drop out of the job market permanently, in their fast-changing fields, a career gap of just few years can make it very hard to re-enter—and some of these women have gaps of a decade or more.
To help them get back on their professional feet, some companies have launched re-entry initiatives or “returnships”: internship or mentorship programs for mid-career employees that enable them to rapidly update their skills and re-establish their professional networks. Erin Carson at CNET profiles IBM’s re-entry program, a 12-week internship that places mid-career women with STEM backgrounds in one of the company’s various business lines:
Participants get a mentor and work on an actual project, whether it’s in data analytics or programming. The idea is that the program can create a smooth transition for its interns, get them up to speed and give managers a chance to see the interns’ work before hiring them.
In the past year, we’ve been hearing more and more about “returnships”: programs similar to internships for mid-career professionals looking to re-enter the workforce after taking extended career breaks to raise children or care for sick or elderly relatives. While the concept of the returnship is not new, today’s tight talent market has sparked renewed interest in it. Because the vast majority of employees who fit that description are women, returnships have been held up as a way to fill gaps in critical talent segments like tech by reaching out to an oft-neglected cohort, and Silicon Valley employers have been working with dedicated organizations like iRelaunch and Path Forward to bring more mid-career women back in the door. These programs are showing mixed results so far, though it is early days yet and the talent shortage they are meant to address is unlikely to abate anytime soon.
Now, Digiday’s Tanya Dua reports, ad agencies are also beginning to embrace returnships as a partial solution to their industry’s talent and diversity challenges. Advertising is particularly in need of such programs, Dua writes, as “the very nature of the agency business makes it hard for people with résumé gaps to make a return”:
The rapidly evolving state of modern media, marketing and technology makes it harder for returnees to play catch-up. Accompanying that struggle is the assumption that such returnees will not be able to put in as many hours and deal with the unpredictable nature of client demands.
Last August, a nonprofit organization called Path Forward launched a program of “returnships” with six Silicon Valley employers—GoDaddy, Zendesk, Demandbase, Coursera, CloudFlare and Instacart—to help mid-career tech professionals return to the workforce after taking career breaks to care for children or elderly relatives. Many of these returnees are women, as they are still more likely than men to take on caregiving roles, and many in the tech sector believe that bringing these women back into the fold is a critical step toward addressing shortages in key talent segments.
This week, Return Path announced a second cohort of returnships with seven other tech employers, Fortune’s Claire Zillman reports:
The employers include data analytics company Verisk Analytics; Internet advertising and ad management software provider AppNexus; Medallia, a customer feedback solutions provider; Intacct, a company that provides financial management software; Volta, which operates an electric car charger network; Quantcast, a digital marketing company; and Cloudera, a software company that provides data analytics and management products. … The seven new companies partnering with Path Forward want to fill about 30 positions in fields like engineering, marketing, professional services, technical operations, and sales.
Zillman also checks in on how Return Path’s first cohort fared:
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Last week, PricewaterhouseCoopers India announced the launch of a program that gives mothers with at least two years’ tenure at the company the option to take as much as three years of child care leave at one time during their employment, PTI reported:
“Our intent with the launch of this programme is to put into practice the deep organisational commitment towards supporting our women employees and their personal needs,” PwC India Chief People Officer Jagjit Singh said.
Some benefits of the programme include continuity of service throughout the programme duration, a mentor to connect with throughout the programme who will also assist in transition back to the firm, access to local firm events and functions and all PwC-related updates and continuity of all health and welfare benefits.
PwC’s new initiative comes at a time when major Indian firms and multinationals operating in India are making aggressive moves to recruit and retain more women. At the start of this year, PwC India more than doubled its maternity leave offering from 12 to 26 weeks, in step with other large employers there, and a bill working its way through the Indian legislature would require all organizations with more than 10 employees to provide women six months of maternity leave.
At the Harvard Business Review, iRelaunch CEO Carol Fishman Cohen touts mid-career internships as a way to help older employees successfully re-enter the workforce after taking a career break:
Professional internships are emerging as a special category of progressive action for employers and a powerful return-to-work strategy for individuals. These programs create a formal pathway to employment for returning professionals at a time when they have historically been perceived as more difficult to hire. But these perceptions are changing, for good reason. Returning professional internships give employers the opportunity to connect with a talented group of professionals at a moment when their childcare, elder care or other career break responsibilities are reduced or over, and these candidates are ready to fully re-engage in the workforce. Plus, professional internship programs enable employers to increase the number of midlevel to senior-level women in their ranks, since women typically make up a majority of the internship pools.
On the surface, these programs probably mean little to employees who are just starting their careers. For recent graduates, a career break may be the furthest thing from your mind. But looking ahead, there’s no question that expected and unexpected reasons may well lead you to a career break. So, consider what a formal reentry program signals to employees. The employer is sending the message that it recognizes and accepts the reality that some of its employees’ career paths will include a break. For a talented young professional who might harbor some anxiety about how to balance work and the prospect of taking time away to provide childcare or elder care, it says “we understand.” “If a career break is in your future, we want to be your employer of choice when you return; we have a formal path back for you. You are not alone in the transition.”
This type of re-entry program is particularly valuable to mid-career women, who are more likely than men to take career breaks to raise children or care for elderly relatives (though that tide is slowly turning toward greater gender equality). Cohen’s iRelaunch is one of several companies working to help older professional women continue on their career paths in the tech sector, where they are seen as a key factor in filling the shortage of skilled employees.