Workplace Culture

What Is the Motherhood Penalty? 

juin 20, 2023

Mother’s Day is an opportunity to recognize the hard work mothers do and the contributions they make for their families. Last month, Canadians celebrated their mothers and mother figures. But still, mothers lack the formal recognition and benefits of other hard-working individuals at work. Worse yet, according to a 2021 report from Moms at Work, one third of mothers said they faced discrimination or mistreatment for being mothers. Discrimination, mistreatment, and other challenges mothers face for being moms are all part of a phenomenon known as the motherhood penalty. 

How does the motherhood penalty affect working moms? 

The motherhood penalty describes the systemic disadvantages mothers face, and it affects areas like their: 

  • Compensation;
  • Chances of being hired or promoted; 
  • Mental health and wellbeing; 
  • Work assignments and job duties; and 
  • Interpersonal relationships at work. 

For example, in a study where participants were asked to evaluate fictitious applications, applicant mothers were six times less likely than childless women and over three times less likely than childless men to be recommended for hire. Low-income mothers and those in equity-deserving groups face unique challenges whereby the motherhood penalty stacks on top of other systemic disadvantages. Employers should work to address these individual cases and foster equity and inclusion for all employees year-round

Assumptions that affect mothers outside of work can also filter into their work life. This makes both areas harder to manage. According to recent data from Statistics Canada, mothers (52%) provide more care to children and care-dependent adults than fathers (42%). People also often consider mothers the default parent and contact them for caregiving needs. “Double shift” refers to the burdens and obligations mothers often take on in addition to their regular job.

Do fathers face the same challenges? 

While mothers typically face new challenges after becoming a parent, fathers generally receive new benefits. The “fatherhood bonus” refers to these benefits dads receive, such as increased compensation and more promotions. 

Why does the motherhood penalty exist? 

The motherhood penalty is based on unfounded beliefs and biases. For example, someone may believe mothers are less competent or ambitious than childless women. Others may think mothers are less committed to their profession or goals after becoming a parent. Some context and curiosity can reveal how untrue these stereotypes are. A 2019 report from McKinsey and Lean In revealed that more mothers agreed with ambition-related statements (for example, “I want to be promoted”) than women overall. Assumptions about mothers may be untrue. But if left unaddressed, they can lead to decisions that limit a mother’s ability to thrive in her career. 

Can we end the motherhood penalty? 

Employers can create systemic and social changes to remove barriers working moms face and help put an end to the motherhood penalty. While the unconscious biases underlying decisions that negatively affect working moms are difficult to self-detect, employees can learn to recognize and uproot their biases with effective training. From a catalogue of over 240 courses, HRdownloads offers training on unconscious bias and other areas to promote equitable workplaces. 

Interested in learning more about how you can make a difference for mothers in your organization? Our FREE Guide to Ending the Motherhood Penalty outlines initiatives employers can implement that make the biggest difference to mothers. Mother’s Day isn’t the only opportunity to formally recognize the contributions mothers make at work. Be sure to consistently recognize working moms and the rest of your workforce’s achievements and contributions throughout the year. 

Download the Guide to Ending the Motherhood Penalty.