What Is the Motherhood Penalty?

By Dana Webb · May 03, 2024 · 6 minute read

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What Is the Motherhood Penalty?

Having children brings many joys. But for women, it can also have a financial dark side. Becoming a mother often results in a loss of pay and opportunities for career advancement, a phenomenon known as the motherhood penalty. In fact, women experience a 60% decrease in income compared to men in the decade after their first child is born, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2023 Women in Work Index.

Many factors contribute to the motherhood penalty, and not every woman experiences it in the same way. Understanding the motherhood penalty can help women — and their families — sidestep this financial setback.

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How Does the Motherhood Penalty Work?

If you want to avoid the motherhood penalty and keep your budget on track, it pays to know your enemy. According to a 2023 article published in the scientific journal PNAS, women’s diminished earnings after the birth of a child is driven by both a reduction in employment and by lower earnings for those who remain employed. Let’s look at each of these factors.

Despite the fact that women today have achieved historic levels of education and are working at senior levels in the corporate world, they are still more likely than men to cut back on their working hours or stop working altogether after a baby is born. Some women may choose jobs that allow for more flexibility in hours even if those roles pay less.

Discrimination is a more insidious factor: Women make up nearly half of all U.S. workers and do the bulk of consumer spending, yet some hiring managers still believe that women’s earnings are not as critical as men’s for household support. (A quick look at any parent’s money tracker app would reveal just how untrue this stereotype is.) When two women are similarly qualified for a job, the one without children tends to earn more than the one who has kids. And when men and women hold similar positions, fatherhood seems to confer a salary advantage in many occupations.

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Why the Motherhood Penalty Matters

Dual-income households have been the norm among married couples for decades, and most households composed of married couples with children have two working parents, according to 2023 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Families with two healthy incomes are most likely to be able to afford a home, and to be able to cover other large expenses, including the cost of kids. (A 2022 report from the Brookings Institution suggests that the average middle-income family today will spend more than $310,000 to raise a child to age 17.)

But the motherhood penalty takes an especially hard toll on families led by women. According to the 2023 Census, 21% of U.S. children are growing up in a household led by a single mother, who often has no other source of income than her own earnings. The motherhood penalty may contribute to the fact that nearly 30% of single-parent families are living below the federal poverty level.

Factors Contributing to the Motherhood Penalty

As noted above, the unspoken ideas that women belong at home caring for their children, or that women are not vital contributors to their family finances, continue to be a driver of the motherhood penalty. This is despite the fact that households where two parents work outside the home is now the norm in the U.S.

But there is another troubling scenario. Women may leave their job because childcare costs more than they earn. The cost of caring for an infant in a childcare center averages $15,417 per year per child. In big cities, the number climbs even higher: Washington, D.C. averages $24,243, for example. And even when women don’t stop working, they may scale back their hours, or take more flexible but less well-paid positions.

The motherhood penalty is unfair, and one additional factor adds to the unfairness: In households with two working parents, where each parent earns roughly the same amount, women still spend more time on caregiving responsibilities than men do — 12.2 hours per week on average, compared with 9 hours for men, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center report. Women also spend 4.6 hours doing housework to men’s 2 hours. Women’s work may be valued less, but as the old saying goes, it’s never done.

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Tips to Avoid the Motherhood Penalty

So what can women do to safeguard their finances from the motherhood penalty?

Consider your career choice. Women can begin to protect their financial future while they are still contemplating a career path. Some research suggests that the motherhood penalty disappears for mothers who work in business and post-secondary education. And in STEM careers, and fields such as medicine and law, mothers actually appear to earn more than women who don’t have kids.

Stand up for fair earnings. Exercise your right to be fairly compensated with every step you take in the working world. Applying for a job? Do your research to learn what is a good entry-level salary. Offered a position? Learn how to ask for a signing bonus — with unemployment relatively low, employers in industries from retail to engineering may pay you to come on board.

Change jobs. Women may be less likely to change jobs after becoming mothers, as switching jobs can be stressful and time off is often allotted based on seniority. Yet changing jobs is one way to bump up your salary. When you do switch, make sure you understand what is a competitive pay rate. A growing number of states, including California, Colorado, and New York, have passed pay transparency laws that require employers to post salary ranges when they advertise job openings.

Don’t share your status. It’s unlikely that you’ll be asked during a job interview if you have caregiving responsibilities, as doing so may violate federal and state laws. But many women casually disclose that they are parents during the interview process without thinking twice about it. Avoid talking about your personal life when interviewing for a job and consider that many employers examine applicants’ social media feeds during their screening process.

Advocate for fair pay and families. Research suggests that moms in women-dominated and low-paid professions face the greatest motherhood penalty. To help promote equitable pay that can sustain families, you can support raising the minimum wage. Lifting your voice in favor of government support for affordable childcare and for mandatory paid parental/caregiver leave can also help ensure that women who want to stay in the workforce after having a child can afford to do so.

The Takeaway

Despite the fact that women are working outside the home in historic numbers, the motherhood penalty still exacts a perilous price for many women and their families. Acknowledging that women are financially penalized for becoming parents is a first step in fighting back against the stereotyping and discrimination that is often at the root of this problem.

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What is meant by the motherhood penalty?

The motherhood penalty refers to the fact that women’s earnings suffer after they have children, sometimes due to discrimination in hiring or the awarding of promotions, and sometimes because women scale back on work or stop working altogether after having a child.

How does the motherhood penalty affect a woman’s career?

The motherhood penalty results in lower earnings, and because future earnings are often based on current salary, the diminishment in income often persists as a woman progresses up the ladder.

How can I avoid the motherhood penalty?

A primary way to avoid the motherhood penalty is to know your worth. Do your research on salary before taking a job, and reevaluate your salary at least yearly by looking at comparable positions.

Photo credit: iStock/Pekic

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