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Motherhood Penalty

Written by

Tiffany Clark

Reviewed by

VidCruiter Editorial Team

Last Modified

May 16, 2024
Motherhood Penalty
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The motherhood penalty occurs when working mothers encounter pay disadvantages, perceived incompetence, and fewer benefits compared to women without children. In addition to these disadvantages, research published by the Journal of Managerial Issues shows that mothers in the workforce are often held to a higher standard than child-free women and fathers. 


A Harvard study showed that hiring managers are less inclined to hire mothers than women without children. The same study also revealed these findings:


  • When an employer hires a woman with children, the employer is likely to offer the woman a lower salary than child-free women. 

  • Men with children don’t face the same penalty. 

  • Mothers are six times less likely than women who aren’t mothers to be recommended for hire.

  • Moms are 3.35 times less likely to be recommended for hire than child-free men. 

  • Mothers who are hired for a desirable role are less likely to be promoted. 


In 2007, Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Bernard, and In Paik conducted a laboratory study that was published by the American Journal of Sociology. In the study, participants were given the resumes of non-parents and parents with equivalent qualifications. The participants were instructed to complete an employee evaluation of the samples. Study results showed that mothers were rated as significantly less committed, less competent, less likely to be recommended for leadership roles, and less committed to the job. Additionally, the recommended salaries for the mothers were 7.6% less than the suggested salaries for child-free women. Standards for mothers were also much stricter, and they needed a significantly higher management exam score to be considered for hire. 


Motherhood Penalty Examples


Suppose a mother is a highly skilled manager at a large firm. She has been with the company for six years and is known for her leadership, creativity, and dedication. Recently, she had her first child and returned to her job after taking the company’s allowed maternity leave. 


Upon her return, she notices a shift in how her colleagues and supervisors perceive her. Despite her previous high performance, she now faces the assumption that her priorities have changed.


As time progresses, she is passed over for an advancement opportunity and discovers that she received a smaller pay raise than her child-free co-workers. Moreover, she observes that she is no longer being assigned to high-profile projects. Instead, she is given low-risk projects with less visibility. 

Related Terms

Maternal Wall

is a term that refers to stereotypes and other discrimination against mothers who seek employment. The maternal wall is hit when a woman encounters workforce discrimination based on past, present, or future pregnancies.

Mommy Track

can result following maternal wall discrimination. An employee is forced onto the mommy track when they are passed over for promotion, demoted, or fired for taking maternity leave.

Work-Effort Theory

is a flawed theory that focuses on the productivity of workers. This approach suggests that the wage penalty mothers face may be due to productivity differences between non-mothers and mothers.

Gender Pay Gap

is a term that refers to the average difference between salaries or pay between working women and men doing the same job.

Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD)

is sometimes referred to as family caregiver discrimination. FRD is employment discrimination against employees who provide care for a family member when not working.

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