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.
Quartz’s Maria Thomas highlights new data from the Monster Salary Index, released by the online employment portal Monster India, showing that the longer Indian women work, the more their pay lags behind that of their male peers:
Data for 2017 show Indian women with three to five years of experience earn marginally higher median wages (1.09%) than men at the same level. But the tide begins to turn once employees have six to 10 years of experience, with men earning 15.3% more than women. And at over 11 years of experience, the gender pay gap becomes a startling 25%. …
These figures are particularly frustrating given all the obstacles women must typically overcome in the first place to make it to the top of their fields. To begin with, India’s conservative society still identifies bearing and caring for children as a woman’s primary role. That makes it incredibly difficult to juggle household responsibilities alongside professional ones. All the more so after childbirth—that is if at all new mothers are allowed to return to the workplace. Among those who are, only a lucky few can expect a reliable support system, including childcare facilities and flexible timings.
These challenges are by no means specific to India. Studies in the US and UK have also found that the gender pay gap starts small and grows over the course of people’s careers, with marriage and children playing a role in holding back the growth of women’s earnings as they either make sacrifices in their own career to accommodate their spouse’s, take career breaks to raise children, or find themselves shut out of promotions and stretch assignments due to family obligations (if not outright gender bias).
Because the gender role expectations placed on Indian women are even more restrictive than those of their peers in Western countries, the obstacle is that much greater, but not qualitatively different.
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A recent survey by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 59 percent of employers believe a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant to her prospective employer while being considered for a position, while 46 percent believe it is reasonable to ask if they have young children and 44 percent said women should work for an organization for at least a year before deciding to have children, Personnel Today’s Rob Moss reported last week:
The EHRC research, conducted in autumn 2017 by YouGov, also found that:
- 44% of employers believe that women who have had more than one pregnancy while in the same job can be a “burden” to their team
- 41% say that pregnancy in the workplace puts “an unnecessary cost burden” on the workplace
- 40% of employers claim to have seen at least one pregnant woman in their workplace “take advantage” of their pregnancy
- 32% believe women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are “generally less interested in career progression” than other employees.
Surprisingly, most HR decision makers share some of the sentiment of the wider survey sample.
These assumptions and sentiments are exactly the reason why women shouldn’t have to disclose if they are pregnant in an interview or at any point during recruitment. I understand the desire to control for all factors in recruiting, but if sentiments such as these lead to fewer women being hired, than this is perpetuating the problem of discrimination against pregnant women and mothers, based on the erroneous assumption that hiring mothers will have a negative impact on business.
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.”
The high cost and limited availability of child care is one of the major burdens facing working families today, particularly in the US, but also in the UK and other countries: Parents are spending a sizable chunk of their incomes on child care, making career decisions based on these costs, and sacrificing earnings by pursuing flexible schedules or part-time work in order to make more time to spend with their children.
Unable to afford full-time child care, many mothers (and it’s almost always mothers) are forced to work part-time or drop out of the workforce entirely to take care of their children, especially when they have more than one. Because responsibility for child care still falls predominantly on women, this factor contributes heavily to the gender pay gap.
In the US, a historically tight labor market is driving employers to reckon with this problem, now that they are feeling it more acutely than ever, Jennifer Levitz reports at the Wall Street Journal. Levitz hears from employers around the country that are increasingly concerned about retaining female employees amid a dearth of child care options and have begun to look for ways to expand these options for their employees, including lobbying state governments for legislative solutions. Some coworking spaces have also experimented with child care programs as a benefit for their members.
The gold standard of child care benefits are on-site facilities, such as Patagonia famously offers at its Ventura, California headquarters and its Reno, Nevada distribution center. While these services are expensive to implement, Patagonia maintains that this investment nearly pays for itself between tax incentives, better retention, and lower turnover. From an employee perspective, on-site daycare is the family benefit most preferred by employees all over the globe, according to our research at CEB, now Gartner. This is particularly true in the US, where employees are twice as likely as in other markets to say they would prefer on-site daycare over a 5 percent increase in pay.
The latest report on the gender pay gap from the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies sheds some new light on precisely how becoming a mother leads women to earn less than men—the so-called “motherhood penalty”—and contributes to the gender pay gap. The BBC highlights the key findings:
The Institute for Fiscal Studies report found by the time a couple’s first child is aged 20, many mothers earn nearly a third less than the fathers. A key factor was women working part-time in motherhood, the report said. …
“The effect of part-time work in shutting down wage progression is especially striking,” the report added. “Whereas, in general, people in paid work see their pay rise year on year as they gain more experience, our new research shows that part-time workers miss out on these gains.” The vast majority of part-time workers were women, especially mothers of young children, the report said.
Other studies, including a previous version of the same IFS report, have identified the motherhood penalty as a major factor (if not indeed the factor) driving the gender pay gap over time. These studies have found that even when women and men start out their careers earning equal salaries, disparities begin to emerge in their late 20s and 30s, coinciding with the years in which women are most likely to have children. Because women are expected to take on the bulk of child care responsibilities, it is mothers who are usually forced to take career breaks or work part-time to make room in their schedules for these obligations, while fathers tend to remain at work.
The difficulty of balancing the demands of parenthood with those of a professional career drives many women to drop out of the workforce after having children, especially when their employers don’t offer them the right kind of support. The career setbacks women often suffer as a consequence of motherhood has also been identified as a key factor, and quite possibly the main factor, in the gender pay gap. As employers have become more aware of the challenges working mothers face, more organizations are realizing they need to step up their efforts to retain mid-career women after they start families.
One company that has taken an innovative approach to supporting the mothers in its workforce is Fifth Third Bank, based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fast Company’s Lydia Dishman notes the success of Fifth Third’s maternity concierge service for women looking to raise a family but stay in the workforce:
Maternity Concierge was started in late January and then rolled out as a virtual concierge for employees of the bank’s locations across 10 states. Fifth Third’s chief administrative officer, Teresa Tanner, says that she took note of how many women she spoke to reached a career pivot point when they began planning to start a family. Tanner says that while benefits like flex time, part time, and job sharing can help, “There’s a big cost to that, you still delay your career or slow it down.” …