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Blog Insight & Commentary

How Ending the Motherhood Penalty Benefits All

Working moms make less than men and women without children. It’s time for that to stop

working mom with son

Caroline L. Huftalen is freelance writer and the founder and CEO of Survivors Project, a nonprofit organization and legal fund for survivors of domestic violence. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

When my husband and I began the “let’s start a family” talk, it felt like the timing could not have been better for us. He had recently made a job switch that included a promotion, and I was working at a job that felt like one of the best fits in a long time. But when the talks became reality, that comfy cushion disappeared—for me, at least.

When my husband announced to his boss that we were expecting, he was immediately offered a raise. I, on the other hand, in a company of all women, was faced with a drastic shift in atmosphere: Before a family became a factor in my employment, I was slated as the next person to run the company and my work was constantly commended. After I became pregnant, I was seen as no longer dependable, no longer able to give it my all, no longer worth it.

Read more: How to Tell the Boss You’re Pregnant

That, coupled with the offer of a maximum of two weeks maternity leave (unpaid), forced me out.

My story is a surprisingly common one among working mothers, so common, in fact, that it has its own name: the motherhood penalty, or the systematic disadvantages in pay, perceived competence, and benefits working mothers face in comparison to women without children.

In 2018, on average, women were making 80 cents to their male counterparts’ dollar. For women of color, the gap is even wider. Add in children, and women begin making 13 percent to 18 percent less—depending on the number of children you have— than women without children, according to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.  

Read more: The Messy Reality of American Maternity Leave Policy

Another factor making it even harder for mothers to catch up is that women are less likely to receive raises, even when they ask for them, than their male counterparts. And even though equally interested in reaching the top tier in their careers, women are 15 percent less likely to get promoted. Think of the key timing in one’s career that, on average, people have children. If women are already being passed up for promotions and pay raises, the perceived burdens (less likely to work late, less devoted to the job, etc.) that seemingly only mothers face make gender bias feel insurmountable. That leads to many women, like myself, leaving the workplace entirely.

I was lucky that our household’s financial burden could be met by my husband’s salary, thanks to the reward he received for becoming a father. (We call that the “fatherhood bonus,” and it’s essentially the opposite of the motherhood penalty; men’s income actually increases when they decide to have children.)

But a lot of women are not in my situation. With 70 percent of mothers with children at home going to work, and 40 percent of those mothers being the primary breadwinner, families are faced with having to do much, much more with far fewer resources. The biggest raises are often given to fathers with the highest salaries, and not surprisingly, the biggest penalty falls to low-income mothers.  

Read more: Why the Fight for $15 is a Feminist Issue

The big-picture solution is to the gender pay gap because that already starts women out on uneven footing, but according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, pay parity won’t happen for more than 100 years.

In the meantime, two small steps companies can take to get there are offering better family leave and childcare.

I would have been able to keep my job if there had been a benefits package that included comparable paid family leave at my company and my husband’s. My husband had to use his sick time to be able to spend a meager week at home with his newborn child and recovering wife.

As for childcare, that’s just another asset that would make it easier for working moms to get their jobs done. Fortune 500 companies like Home Depot (2.9 stars) are already leading the charge by offering onsite childcare and making sure both mothers and fathers remain valued members of the workforce post-baby.

Read more: Why So Many “Groundbreaking” Company Policies Fall Short for Women

More and more companies need to take steps like these. Not only because they’re good for employees, but also because they create a competitive environment that allows those employees—both mothers and fathers—who they’ve already invested in to remain at work.

Employees are happy and you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars prepping a new hire? That’s a win-win.

This article is part of InHerSight’s month-long coverage of equal pay. Timed with Equal Pay Day, the series looks at how the pay gap affects women of all backgrounds and in all industries.

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