The Motherhood Penalty (Gender Pay Gap)

At Heartpace, we’ve talked at length about gender pay gaps. If you are wondering about how to tackle gender pay gaps at your organization, myths surrounding the topic, or how to close the gender pay gap in your company, we’ve created a few helpful resources for you. But a crucial part of understanding why gender pay disparity exists is related to the ‘Motherhood Penalty.’


Read to learn about the motherhood penalty wage gap as well as the motherhood penalty vs. the fatherhood bonus

So what is the motherhood penalty?


The biggest issue with the ‘motherhood penalty’ is that it is largely a social problem. It comes from traditional values held by modern society. Oftentimes, the motherhood penalty is carried out both by employers and coworkers unconsciously. 


Unfortunately, negative stereotypes about mothers still permeate the workplace despite a lot of advancement. A report by Bright Horizons found that 41 percent of those surveyed perceive working mothers to be less committed to their jobs. The same report found that 65 percent of women have reservations about having a child and 42 percent fear it could hurt their career trajectory.


Another problem with the motherhood penalty is that it is very hard to identify and fix unconscious bias. What’s more, it holds many women back in their careers and causes families to lose out on a lot of valuable income. 


The motherhood penalty is a lose-lose-lose situation. Fathers lose out on being involved caregivers, women get fewer work opportunities, and organizations do not get the benefits that working mothers bring to companies. 


In 30 years, the gender pay gap for women with children made very little progress in closing. This means that while strides could have been made to eliminate the motherhood penalty, it has been slow-moving.

The motherhood penalty vs the fatherhood bonus


Statistics show that while women experience a ‘penalty’ from having children, men experience a ‘bonus.’ Even though 40 percent of women are now the main breadwinners in their households, The New York Times reported that women experience a 4 percent pay cut for each child they have while men experience a 6 percent pay increase. 


Psychology experts say that socially, fathers might be viewed as more mature, committed, and stable. On the other hand, mothers are more likely to be seen as distracted and not fully committed to their work. 


It has also been shown that women can be without children and unmarried, yet still experience a motherhood penalty. The Institute of Labor Economics (IZA) carried out a study where women aged 30 listed as single and childless on their job applications were unfairly penalized in the job search process.

Benefits of mothers in the workplace


Working mothers can bring several benefits to the modern workplace. The same Bright Horizon study mentioned earlier highlights the following benefits: 

Mothers make great leaders

In the study, 89% of those surveyed stated that they agreed moms in leadership positions tend to get the best out of employees. Mothers in leadership roles were rated as exceptionally good at multitasking, managing their time effectively, and having good listening skills.

Moms are both committed and ambitious 

While caring for a family is important to working mothers, 74 percent of moms surveyed said they worked because their careers were important to them. Also, money isn’t the only factor in why women choose to work. Careers are a source of pride among women. 


Some of the other benefits cited by the study were that working mothers tend to be calmer in a crisis (51%), better team players (44%), and more diplomatic when handling work issues (47%).

How can the motherhood penalty be fixed?


There are a few ways organizations today can make effective changes that will help eliminate the motherhood penalty. 


Iceland is widely considered to be one of the most progressive countries in tackling gender pay gaps. The Icelandic government has even implemented parental leave laws aimed at alleviating the motherhood penalty on women. 


Here are ways organizations can work to eliminate the motherhood penalty in their organizations:

Offering more generous family/parental leave

It becomes easier for women to stay in the workforce when they have time allotted to take care of their children when they’re sick, need to make medical appointments, or for other reasons

Provide paid parental leave and childcare

Many companies might see it as a huge cost to offer paid parental leave as well as childcare, but there are many benefits to doing this. Now, almost 40 percent of employers are offering paid parental leave in their organizations. 


Mothers who contribute a lot to the companies they work for are likely to be more incentivized to stay if they have flexibility in their jobs to be parents. Higher retention rates mean cost saving for the company, too. 

Provide more support and pathways to leadership

Feeling supported by an employer is huge for engagement and for employees to feel respected in an organization. Conduct regular 1 to 1 talks for better transparency and check-in with employees who are mothers on their career ambitions and goals. Support costs nothing and can mean huge employee engagement benefits for your organization.

Offer inclusive leave

Inclusive parental leave means that parental leave is gender-neutral. When men are given more time off to be with their children, it normalizes fathers as caregivers in addition to mothers. This is an important step is starting to break down the traditional ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’ roles that men and women are still following today, and it all starts with you, the employer.

Implement software to help analyze and resolve pay disparity

With Heartpace software, you can run salary gap analyses in your organization that will help eliminate unconscious bias and subjective judgments. It also offers options for report building and automation of the salary review process. 


Learn more here about our Pay module and how you can work to eliminate the motherhood penalty in your organization.


Organizations have to realize what they’re missing out on when they (often unknowingly) make women pay a price for being mothers. The motherhood penalty not only negatively affects mothers and households, but companies lose highly valuable talent because women have to deprioritize their careers. 


We hope this article on how to handle the motherhood penalty in your organization has been helpful, and we encourage those organizations looking to ramp up their pay systems to contact us today.

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