Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Motherhood Penalty in the Workplace

Society penalizes working moms for having kids and rewards fathers.

Key points

  • The motherhood penalty describes discrimination women face with the intersecting identities of mother and employee.
  • When women have children they are perceived as less competent and committed to their career.
  • When men have children they are viewed as more committed and responsible in the workplace.
  • Following the transition to parenthood, women experience reduced pay whereas men experience increased wages.

Working mothers make up a significant part of the labor force. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 there was a working mother in about 71 percent of families with children under the age of 18.

Data also shows that similar rates (roughly half) of mothers and fathers report that working makes it difficult for them to be good parents. However, mothers are more likely than fathers to report that being a working parent also makes it harder to advance in their careers. The numerous difficulties faced by women with the intersecting identities of mother and employee is a phenomenon known as the motherhood penalty.

Source: Unsplash/Ergonofis
Source: Unsplash/Ergonofis

The Motherhood Penalty vs. The Fatherhood Bonus

The motherhood penalty is a term that describes the discrimination working mothers experience in the workplace as compared with their female counterparts without children, and compared with men regardless of parental status. This discrimination leads to the following issues for mothers:

  1. being perceived as less competent and committed
  2. having fewer professional development opportunities
  3. receiving less pay

Men, however, generally have different experiences in the workplace when becoming fathers. Fatherhood is seen as a valued characteristic by employers, with fathers receiving greater opportunities and increased wages. This phenomenon has been coined the fatherhood bonus.

Competence, Commitment, and Professional Opportunities

Unlike the perception of mothers in the workplace, fatherhood is perceived to be a valued characteristic. Fatherhood has been shown to signal greater work commitment, stability, and deservingness. On the other hand, employers view mothers as unreliable due to the “distraction” of family responsibilities.

One study demonstrated this by having employers rate employees’ competence and commitment. This study found that mothers’ competency was rated 10 percent lower than non-mothers who were otherwise equal candidates. Mothers’ commitment to their jobs was similarly rated 12 percent lower. On the other hand, fathers were rated 5 percent more committed than their non-father counterparts. These disparate perceptions mothers and fathers receive in the workplace lead to different doors opening or closing.

Similar research found mothers are less likely to be called back for jobs, recommended for hire, or recommended for promotion. These actions in the workplace also have meaningful impacts on earnings.

Source: Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto
Source: Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto

Wages and Pay Gap

Compensation is one of the clearest ways to measure the motherhood penalty in contrast to the fatherhood bonus. In fact, the motherhood penalty might account for a significant portion of why the gender pay gap persists. The pay gap between non-mothers and mothers may be larger than the gap between men and women.

Research demonstrates a per-child wage penalty of 5 to 20 percent for employed mothers versus an approximate 6 percent wage increase for employed fathers. Men are not penalized for becoming a father; rather, they are offered higher salaries than their childless counterparts. Women, on the other hand, experience a reduction in compensation. These impacts are greatest when children are youngest (under age 5) and when parents are also faced with navigating high-cost childcare options.

Disproportionate Impacts

The gender impacts on employed parents must also be understood in the context of other intersecting identities that either create privilege or oppression. For example, the fatherhood bonus benefits those the most who are already privileged in the labor market, such as White men and those who are highly educated in professional jobs. On the flip side, the working mothers who can least afford to be penalized experience the oppression of the motherhood penalty the most. For example, the motherhood penalty for Black and Native American women is twice that for White women.

What Can We Do?

  • Advocate for paid parental leave. Take the steps to advocate for paid parental leave within your organization whether you are planning to have children during your tenure or not. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides protections for parents to take time away from their job following childbirth, it does not provide paid time away. Because there is no paid parental leave on a national level we must look to states and companies to determine policy. Paid parental leave creates a work climate that benefits everyone. It improves the physical and mental health of both the parent and infant, including reduced incidence of postpartum depression. Research has also demonstrated countries with family leave policies can reduce the motherhood penalty.
  • The transition to new parenthood is difficult. If you are pregnant or recently had a baby and your mental health is suffering, locate a therapist with training in postpartum mental health and new parenting through Postpartum Support International.
More from Rachel Diamond Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today