The gender wage gap is real, with men often earning more than women from their very first day on a job and throughout their careers. But there is another inequity in the salaries of men and women that is less often discussed: the "motherhood penalty."
The motherhood penalty is when women who are mothers are judged as less competent and committed than men — or women who are childless.
The Gender Action Portal reports that working mothers are also less likely to be hired or given promotions and have lower recommended salaries.
The portal also references other studies that found "visibly pregnant women are judged as being less committed to their jobs, less dependable, less authoritative, more emotional, and more irrational than otherwise equal, non-pregnant female managers."
In a study published in the American Journal of Sociology, authors Shelly J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik found:
- Mothers were seen as 12.1% less committed to their jobs than non-mothers. Fathers were seen as being 5% more committed than non-fathers.
- On average, working mothers were allowed to be late 3.16 days per month before no longer receiving a hiring recommendation, compared to 3.73 days for childless women and 3.6 days per month for working fathers.
- Recommended starting salaries for working moms were 7.9% lower than non-mothers and 8.6% lower than fathers.
The National Women's Law Center, using Census data, reports the motherhood penalty is costing women about $16,000 a year in lost wages.
"Families depend on women's incomes, yet mothers, regardless of their education level, their age, where they live, or their occupation, are paid less than fathers. When mothers are shortchanged, children suffer, and poverty rises," says Emily Martin, the center's vice president for education and workplace justice.
Mothers even face a "penalty" with colleagues. A Bright Horizons study found that 41% of employed Americans see working moms as less devoted to their work, and 38% judge them for needing a more flexible schedule.
Interestingly, that same survey also found some positive opinions about working mothers:
- 91% say moms can bring unique skills to leadership roles in an organization.
- Moms are seen as better listeners, multitaskers and are more supportive and organized.
- 85% say that motherhood helps prepare women for leadership challenges.
Since the pandemic forced millions of workers to work remotely, the motherhood penalty has entered new territory. An article in Harvard Business Review reports that working moms have the added burden of caring for children while working their jobs from home, doing the lion's share of household tasks, and being seen as "on" to colleagues and bosses.
"Of notable concern, one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether because of the strains that working remotely during the pandemic has put on them," they write.
In the article, Smith and Johnson state that women — now more than ever — need more support from male colleagues to stop the further erosion of pay and job equity. Among their suggestions: proactive support of women through conversations, mentorships, or sponsorships; making sure women are heard in meetings; giving them the same access to information; and ensuring they don't get stuck with office housekeeping tasks such as taking notes in a meeting or planning a virtual social event.
Even when pandemic lockdowns are lifted, working mothers will need greater support from their employers to ensure they don't fall further behind in their careers and have more equitable opportunities — and don't become victims of the "motherhood penalty."