What is the “Motherhood Penalty”?

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

The “motherhood penalty” refers to the disadvantages that working mothers encounter in terms of hiring, pay, retention, and quality of daily job experience. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the motherhood penalty is the pay gap, most likely because it is easier to quantify. Indeed, it is now clear that being a mother—not just being female or being a parent—is linked to lower income. Remarkably, the pay gap between women with and without children is larger than that between women and men. Claire Cain Miller aptly wrote in a 2014 New York Times article: “Even in the age of ‘Lean In,’ when women with children run Fortune 500 companies and head the Federal Reserve, traditional notions about fathers as breadwinners and mothers as caregivers remain deeply ingrained. Employers, it seems, have not yet caught up to the fact that women can be both mothers and valuable employees.”


Image credit: A VDB, CC BY 2.0

Results from two studies detailed in a 2007 scientific article show that gender discrimination is likely responsible for the motherhood penalty. In both studies, participants evaluated application materials from qualified job candidates. The candidates were of the same‐gender, but differed on parental status. One study indicated that while men were not penalized for—and sometimes benefited from—being a parent, women were negatively impacted by their status as mothers, for example in terms of perceived competence, work commitment, and recommended starting salary. The other study showed that actual employers discriminate against mothers, but not against fathers.

Indeed, according to Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, fatherhood results in a wage bonus for most men, whereas for most women motherhood results in a wage penalty. In a 2014 article, she said: “While the gender pay gap has been decreasing, the pay gap related to parenthood is increasing,” She proposes at least five explanations for the association between motherhood and lower wages.:

  • Many women spend time at home caring for children, and thus interrupt their job experience, or at least full-time job experience, and this can lead to lower wages.
  • Mothers may trade higher wages for “mother-friendly” jobs that are easier to combine with parenting.
  • Mothers may earn less because the needs of their children leave them exhausted or distracted at work, rendering them less productive.
  • Employers may discriminate against mothers by assuming lower work commitment or performance.
  • Women who are less likely to earn higher wages may be more likely to become mothers.

However, Shelley Correll, a sociology professor at Stanford University and one of the authors of the 2007 study mentioned above, told Cain Miller that most of the motherhood penalty exists because of discrimination. “A lot of these effects really are very much due to a cultural bias against mothers,” she said.

Correll remains optimistic that organizations can reduce the bias mothers face. She believes that we need policies that are more deeply cultural and change the norms that govern the workplace. “To change these norms, organizations need to redefine what it means to be a good and productive worker. This will not be easy, but to start policies must first be designed around the principle that all workers have needs outside of work. Second, policies must recognize that productive work can be accomplished outside of the traditional workday and outside of the physical workplace. That is, norms about work time and work place must be shifted for all workers.”

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. This is so infuriating! We can’t win. If we want to have a family, it’s a sign of weakness in the corporate world. If we want to work at the same time, people assume that we’re neglecting out families. It shouldn’t be this difficult. What kind of sense does it make that we are punished for propagating the future? Being a mother and raising healthy, strong, independent children is probably one of the hardest, and most thankless, jobs anyone could have. Companies need to address this, as maternity leave is the first step in bonding with that child. We shouldn’t be penalized for building our future. It’s absurd to me that this happens, but I know it does. Frankly, I think this motherhood penalty is a way for big corporations to keep women in more menial jobs that require much less responsibility, and therefore has a definite cap to what you can achieve. If we had enough maternity (and paternity!) leave, then mom’s coming back to the workforce would be more productive and satisfied because they know they got to spend enough time with their babies. We also shouldn’t be afraid of losing our jobs or facing demotion because we’re starting a family. In no way does that discrimination help anyone, parents or companies.

  2. The motherhood penalty is very real. Some studies showed that women receive a pay decrease when they become mothers, while men experience the opposite. Whether it is because men are thought of having to now provide for their family more financially with another mouth to feed or because women are categorized as viewing their job as less important once they have a child, the mentality is not clear. I believe the motherhood penalty is just another example of how women are constantly devalued, even when they take on the more valuable job in the world: being a mother. I think the only way to fully rectify this problem is to STOP DEVALUING WOMEN! It makes no sense for something as simple as gender to get in the way of how effective a person is viewed to be. It is also crazy that women have to put in the position of having to choose between work and family and are seen as not being able to effectively do both, while men do not face this dilemma. It is these stereotypes and these assumptions that contribute to the differentiation of motherhood and fatherhood; one is seen as a hindrance to the future while the other is seen as a simple addition to what already was.

  3. Discrimination against women because they are parents or they are expected to become parents should be signs that all women can identify and report. Discrimination of any kind can be a law suit and a great deal of a report to human resources. After knowing signs and reporting it, a woman should not desire to work for an employer that thinks she is worth less or less committed to her job than a male counterpart who may also be a parent. Unfortunately, our culture demonstrates this bias that women are weak, distracted and not fully dedicated to their careers which is not true or accurate. In the 21st century whereas we have technology and nontraditional work environments. A time where working from home is normal and needed by men and women. If companies concerns about women with children’s time commitment to a job, then they should be more accommodating to not only the women but the males as well.

  4. It’s incredible how this current wage gap with mothers correlates so much with gender inequality. We seem to place a low value on mothers, our society seeming to be averse to children, but placing high value on our upcoming generations once they enter high school or college. The fact is that what assists children in becoming good students is often good parenting and role models. Young women are taught that they can achieve anything so long as they play the part of a man. But while there are in fact not very extreme differences in intelligence or potential between women and men, once glaring difference is the fact that women can, in fact, give birth. We cannot only try to ‘fit in’ to an organization that has for so long been catered to men, but we must assist with the transition of equality in our society to accommodate the needs of both sexes. We cannot teach young women that they have all the potential in the world, provide them tools to succeed in college, and then not support them as they grow and give birth to the next generation. Without providing mothers the pay, time off, and resources they need to take care of their children, it is not surprising at all that our society is still so patriarchal. Women have to live in a certain amount of fear not only for themselves, but also for their children. This causes us to be sacrificial in ways that we should not be if we want to obtain the same power as men in our society. I believe the fact is that the workforce has not been set up to be an environment of equality, and that we are still using outdated methods, and not accommodating for the changes in society. There needs to be more rules and structure implemented that accommodate for the younger population, their values, and their ideals. Significant research has been done to determine that we spend our workdays differently, and often combine work and personal life in a way that no generation has before us. This assumes that parenthood can be incorporated into work, and with the right tools available to mothers to allow them to care properly for their children, there should not be any difference in the quality of the work they perform or the compensation they receive for it. This will not only provide mothers with more opportunities in the work force, but also allow fathers to play more of a role in their children’s upbringing. I agree with this article when it says that new policies should be implemented. With safe and affordable daycare, close access to their children, permission to work from home on needed days, and an extended maternity leave, I believe mothers should be valued just as much, if not more than men in the workforce.

  5. In my opinion, it is not the business of a company to know whether or not a woman is pregnant except for when she is asking for maternity leave. Being pregnant and raising a family does not always mean you are worse at your job, it just means you have more priorities to take care of and juggle. People always assume woman aren’t able to handle a full time job, partner, kids and still have time to hang out with friends yet somehow when it comes to men, it is assumed that they can do all of that and more. Why is there this stereotype and why hasn’t it been broken already?
    Men do not have to carry a child around for 9 months, nor can their bodies produce nutrients necessary for the growth of a child. So, why do companies have such a problem with women having families and not men? If anything, women should be given much more leeway when pregnant/new mothers because they have responsibilities that men just biologically cannot take care of. Punishing a woman for something she can’t control is not only a form of sexism, but it is also ignorance and unprofessional to the extreme. Many of these women need income to support their children, yet cannot receive pay because they have to handle the duties associated with the gender they were born with.
    Not only should more be done for women who are either pregnant or new mothers, but many of the problems stated above also occur for men who have to take care of newborns. Although they didn’t carry them, they may not be the breadwinner of the household and thus take on the responsibility of raising their children. Though factors should be considered when debating whether or not women should have paid maternity leave (even though its obvious that they should), it is also pertinent to recognize other options that women should be presented with (such as a few month’s of free care at the office’s daycare, or less hours at work or paid leave).

  6. This is exactly why employers can’t ask a woman if she is pregnant, planning to be, or already has children but in my experience no one ever thinks to ask a man the same questions. While it is just as likely that a man will become a father, it is socially understood that the father will be back at work within a few days while the mother is at home. Also, some people assume that the mother is going to have to leave work or not come into work in order to take care of sick children, when men are just as likely to do so. The standard we have set in society is completely biased towards outdated gender roles. Women have proved time and time again that we are more than capable of being mothers, business owners, employees, caregivers, and wives all at the same time.

  7. To me, women are superheroes we are able to give birth, go to work, save the world, be influential, and still read the kids a story before bed. Being able to bear a child is a gift and it’s horrible that women are being punished for it. It’s not okay that we as women have to settle for a cut in pay, that we are forced to choose between having a family and having a career. This is a very serious problem that needs to be given careful attention, but where do you start? How do you get everyone on board to agree that women are just as powerful and intelligent as men and are capable of doing anything? What will it take for people to change their mentality and see women as equals? Women are slowly but surely starting to become moe confident they are applying for those positions and going after those promotions. I just want to know when will women be respected for their contributions and their talents in the workplace?

    • For me, the most astonishing fact was that the pay gap between women with and without children is larger than that between women and men. Not only are women discriminated against because of gender, but we are also being discriminated against for our choice to be parents. This discrimination is likely due to the assumptions that Ms. Budig mentioned: mothers were negatively impacted in areas such as perceived competence and work commitment. Employers are unjustly assuming that mothers will have a lower work commitment and performance. To answer your question Stacy, I believe that we must first start by publicizing findings like these so that employees and employers can be aware. It is possible that more research and studies that explore perceptions and assumptions in the workforce will help us all accept that women are capable and are equals.

  8. Going back to the long history of civilizations dominated by men, it may perhaps be the way we were brought up to believe that women are seen as the “caretakers.” Growing up with a single parent all my life, my mom took the role of both the bread-maker and the caretaker. Due to the environment I grew up in, the one in which my mom did not yield to men and created her own business, I never believed that it was such an issue until I read this article. While the change may be slow, there are many women who stand up to these challenges of being discriminated and prove themselves to be as capable as any man is.
    As Ms.Shelley Correll mentioned, the difference in the treatment between men and women exist due to cultural bias; the belief that men are superior were not ideas we were born with but were implanted in our minds after hundreds of years of living in a world where men worked while women cooked. If people continue to break the old beliefs. Just as my mom proved to me that she did not need to be a man to make a living while raising me, other women can raise up to demonstrate what they are capable of deemed less only due to their genders.

    • I agree with you Dasom, over the past few years my mom has been the breadwinner for our family. However, people act like my dad is still the “breadwinner” and my mom the “caretaker”. My mom is lucky enough to have a job where her pay is not based on her gender, but it pains me that other women have to go through this discrimination. I don’t believe being a mother makes you a less productive worker but a more productive one.

  9. It is upsetting, as it has been mentioned above. It is especially upsetting to me because women usually are more competent than men but are not recognized for it. I have always been told to never have a child if I am not financially stable. As i grow older I realize that this advice was never given with regards to marriage. It is really good advice if you ask me. I guess my question is, what is the best way to address this issue if you are on the job and making less because you are a mother? I know a good thing to do is to always aspire for better positions. This is upsetting also because many times mothers are the primary providers for their families. Women should make just as much as men.

    • I agree, Jade, it is very disheartening to hear that on average being a mother is directly correlated with lower income. My sister and I were raised by a single mother and I couldn’t imagine her being paid less than her equal male counterparts. To think that just because she is a women, who has children, that she was going to be paid less is mind blowing. If anything it would make more sense to pay MORE for someone with children due to the extra living expenses. Luckily, I don’t believe that was ever my mothers’ situation, but to think there are women who are treated in such ways is unbelievable and shouldn’t be allowed in any professional workplace.

  10. It truly is devastating to see that such little progress has been made when it comes to equality for women. Despite the efforts and hard work women have made over the years, it is truly sad to see these results. Motherhood should never be used as a form of punishment for those that are actually willing to undergo the enormous journey. Since when is procreation seen as an unlawful act that deserves a penalty. Women are constantly forced into making a choice between a good career and being able to raise a family, which I should not be so. Women are entitled to good pay and retention as much as men. As explained in the article, it seems employers are still living in the ancient ages where women are just expected to stay home and care for the children. To truly be able to make a change towards equality, employers must first embrace the fact that women are meant for much more than household chores. Women are powerful, strong, and independent, and the rest of the world need to accept and embrace women as they are.

    • Eunice, both you and this blog make very good points! It is deplorable that women are being monetarily penalized for making the choice to be mothers; after all, the very people penalizing women for their choices have mothers themselves. Women have made leaps and bounds of progress over the past several decades; however, as shown by this post, there is still a vast amount of room for improvement. Discrimination is still present in the workplace in a boundless array of forms. The fact that this is still happening to mothers, that there is documented proof of such discrimination, and that little to nothing is being done to correct the problem shows a much deeper problem in our country than what some may have originally anticipated upon initially looking into the wage gap.
      Based upon my studies in the realms of psychology and sociology, I am of the opinion that having spousal support (or at least a social support network) is of utmost importance for the working woman. By having others to help raise her children and share the housework, a woman can devote more time to her career and continue to better herself post-childbirth. Perhaps having more support would help women cut back on their levels of exhaustion and time needed away from their careers that this post mentioned being a common theme among women. There is truly wisdom in the old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child;” this is especially true for professional women in leadership positions!

  11. Wow is all I can say after reading this blog. I think that it is horrible that mothers are overlooked and not taken as seriously as fathers. Being a mother should not define your work ability. Motherhood is not an easy job (I’m not a mom but I know how hard moms work). The study where the motherhood penalty was tested is crazy. The candidates were both qualified, but the fathers were more desired. I feel like people think moms have a disadvantage in the work place. People think they don’t have enough time or are too busy with their families to focus on work. I think that times are changing and being a successful business woman and a mother at the same time is possible. With all of the technology now, work does not have to be done in an office setting. Mothers can get work done in their homes while spending time with family.

    • I completely agree. With technological advancements the Monday thru Friday nine to five (or later) office jobs are slowly becoming unnecessary. More people are able to work remotely whether it is from home or a local coffeeshop. Mothers and fathers should take advantage of the flexibility that technology allows them to continue to contribute to the work force while still raising a family. While it is upsetting, I am not surprised by the pay gap that exists between women with and without children. It is unfortunate, but as more and more women become leaders, CEO’s, business owners etc. we can start to build a workplace that is inclusive, supportive and more tailored to women from all backgrounds. The article stated that “Women who are less likely to earn higher wages may be more likely to become mothers”. If more companies had daycare services at reasonable prices maybe more women would be inclined to join the workforce even if it is for a job that doesn’t pay as well.

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