The Motherhood Penalty

The Motherhood Penalty

                                                                                                                   Photo Credit:


Is the price of motherhood costing women dear?  The gender pay gap between men and women in rich countries is no longer narrowing, despite repeated attempts by corporations and government to address this issue through law.  This raises the question that perhaps the data supporting the statistic that the median wage of a woman working full-time is 85%, is based on a much more complicated picture. 

The different choices faced by men and women at the peak of their careers is a major factor, with women repeatedly confronting what is now coined as ‘the motherhood penalty’.  The dream of two full-time working parents raising a child is increasingly becoming a privilege of the middle and upper classes, with rising child care prices and a lack of subsidies in real terms for parents often forcing at least one of them to stay at home.  That parent is usually the mother.  This imposes a decision on many women in the prime of their professions and on the verge of progressing up the career ladder to promotions and wage increases, to take extended maternity leave, or more drastically to choose to leave their job altogether.  This is without even taking into consideration the struggles faced by single parents and mothers, who so often put their lives on hold to raise another.

Many assume that employers are paying women less than they would have paid a man in her place, and though this is sadly still the case in many situations, the real gap between pay is exacerbated by two reasons.  The first is that the jobs with lower salaries and fewer opportunities for promotion, are overwhelming held by women.  The second is the penalty, literally paid by women for choosing to become mothers.  In both cases, the issues stem from a history of failing to address women’s rights and needs.  As a society, we neglect to acknowledge the differences faced by the sexes as an unavoidable fact of life that we should accommodate for throughout society. 

The occupations many women opt for, including teaching and nursing are less lucrative but arguably equally valuable career choices, as those made by their male counterparts.  Women too, are not without aspiration and are in fact more likely to go to university than men.  This disconnect highlights the long history we have as a society, of devaluing women’s work, and consequently failing to recognise the huge skill-base they bring.

Once in employment, women face the prospect of missing out on promotion opportunities by taking maternity leave, and facing the option of part time work with poorer prospects and consequently lower pay when they return.  Undeniably, the solutions to this problem are complex and go far beyond the reductive policy of simply passing an equal pay-law.  However, as a society, we must ask ourselves if a woman should be punished for wanting a child and for choosing to play a big part in that child’s upbringing?

The solutions to tackle this issue, need to focus on both sexes.  The first, is to improve rights and access to parental leave, sharing the burden of childcare between the sexes, an option for which there is an increasing demand as the view of the male ‘breadwinner’ dissipates.  Unless this option is improved and made more desirable, the common-sense pattern of the mother taking all the allotted maternity leave, over the often more senior and highly paid father will persist.  The second solution must be focussed around providing high-quality and affordable childcare, that is flexible around the school day and the timing of school holidays.  These policies are by no means cheap, but they offer high returns.  Women whose careers continue through motherhood will pay back the money spent on these solutions through higher taxes later, and will have much more financial independence if their circumstances were to change.  A shared approach to parenting is also shown to improve a child’s upbringing, with paternity leave helping to engage father’s in their children’s lives.

The responsibility for making this change does not lie solely with companies and governments, but with us all, to demand an improvement in women’s working rights.  We can no longer use the excuse that because women carry children, they should then be burdened with the resulting sacrifices for the rest of their lives.  We need to encourage flexibility and dual parenting, if both mother and father can combine family and work then we might finally reach an equilibrium.