The Motherhood Penalty

Disclaimer: All data and statistics are a generalized version of women across the United States. Certain inequalities are much more drastic for many women of color and women of the LQBTQA+ community. Many of these inequalities are not showcased due to combined average statistics. The results are amplified when narrowing statistics.

            The motherhood penalty is very alive in the United States and continues to be enrooted into the everyday lives of women across the country in attempts to silently undermine, demote, and hold women back in the workforce. The motherhood penalty starts with the deep-seated belief that a woman’s place is in the home, and while many acts that contribute to this penalty are unintentional, the damage is just as great. In many cases, men who have children are seen as reliable, caring, and someone who has a reason to be a hard worker. These factors contribute to great successes in a man’s career, and he is more likely to be hired if admitting to having children.1 This benefit does not roll over for women, though. A woman is less likely to be hired if she lets in on having a child during the interview, and is seen as unreliable, that she will need to take more time off of work, and that her schedule must be flexible and sporadic. This, in its simplest explanation, is the motherly penalty. Women are negatively affected in the workforce by having children, and their careers suffer blows from the moment they become pregnant. While the penalty has many factors, I will be focusing on the larger aspects that contribute in attempts to break the surface on the deep-rooted sexism in the country, and shed light on barriers that women face when attempting to succeed in the working world.

            Addressing the largest elephant in the room; pay. Women’s earnings slip an average of 4% for each child that they have.2 This pay decrease can be caused by many different aspects directly related to having children.

disclaimer: I am in not discussing the gender wage-gap; I’ll get to that. This is the specific “pay gap” between motherless women vs. mothers.

42% of mothers said that they had to reduce work hours after having children, 39% have had to take significant amounts of time off, 27% have had to quit jobs, and 13% have had to turn down promotions.3 Real world examples may be: having to leave work early because a child has a half day, having to miss work because a child is sick, having to reduce hours because a child’s schedule changes, turning down a promotion because the mother cannot work nights, weekends, and/or early mornings. Women, while fulfilling the basic needs of their children, cannot work as many hours, or work as many holidays, or save their PTO, or even go on business trips. All of these examples result in women being paid less for every child that they have. Many women must face the choice: family, or career. Among the Earl Warren institute for Kaw and Social Policy tenured faculty, 70% of men are married with children, while only 44% of women are married with children.4 More male faculty had families than the female faculty; by a lot. This is a penalty that women must face: to become a mother, or become a worker. While this is not the case for every occupation or situation, many careers pose these problems. We must also address that women are being paid less than men, even if they don’t have children. Just for being women. While the raw gap is down to the penny and may not matter to some, it’s still there. This is not an opinion based discussion.

In addition to being paid less for being mothers, women are also doing more unpaid work. Unpaid is stuff like caring for children, cooking meals, cleaning the house, etc. While women complete around 2.5 hours of unpaid work per day, men only complete roughly 1.25 hours per day.5 Women complete almost an hour more of tasks per day, than men. If we are attributing this to men being at work making money, then why aren’t women being paid for unpaid work (see the penalty)? Unpaid work also contributes to many women feeling pressured to lessen their career load in efforts to feel less overwhelmed, stressed, and/or over worked. This is an umbrella for all sorts of problems.

note: I am not trying to hint that we should begin to pay women for being mothers. The point I’m trying to make here is that mothers need to be okay with doing more work without being paid for it. Simply by becoming mothers their task load increases and they do not receive monetary amounts for that task time.

Mothers begin feeling the motherly penalty before their child is even born. In the United States, only four states offer paid maternity leave.6 On top of putting in greater hours of unpaid work, new parents are only offered twelve weeks of unpaid medical leave.7 In certain states this is offered for fathers, as well, but many choose not to take it due to stigma that revolves are stay-at-home fathers. Due to stereotypes revolving men and their need to “put food on the table”, many new fathers feel a pressure to refuse time off and continue to work during early stages of a child’s life. The standards and stigmas that are placed around new fathers is not related to the inequality that mother’s face, and rather it deserves its own discussion to speak on.

To add to the fire, the United States is one of the only countries in the world, and the only Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that has not passed laws requiring business and corporations to offer paid maternity leave to their employees.8 United States is looked at as a developed, advanced, and progress country, yet is one of the lasting countries who refuses to to require paid maternity leave. With certain businesses being able to refuse paid maternity leave, many women cannot afford to take three months off of work. Women are rapidly becoming the sole or primary source of income in American homes (you heard that right: women are not primary bread winners, yet still have to drag around the penalty). Many mothers cannot afford to take time off of work to bring their child into the world.        

Adding to a lack of paid maternity leave, it only gets worse once the child is born. In Illinois, the average annual cost of infant care is $12,964 per year ($1,080 per month). While this may seem high, Illinois is only ranked eighth in highest costing child care in the US and District of Columbia9.  When looking at a full time employee (forty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year. No breaks.) who is earning minimum wage ($11.00)10, an annual wage is roughly $22,880 before taxes are removed. After taxes, this number drops significantly. After the cost of infant case for one child, you would be left with roughly $10,000 for the entire year. I don’t feel I need to get into the cost of living, or even having a roof over your head. You may be thinking, “well, people who are working minimum wage jobs shouldn’t be having children, because a minimum wage job shouldn’t be a career”. or, “That’s why your spouse should be contributing for a duel income.” To that, I say that this is not an opinion based discussion. Debating whether or not mothers should or shouldn’t have children after they’ve already had them is irrelevant. Looking at a non-minimum wage job, roughly half of the country (48.06%) makes less than $30,000 a year.11 Even in jobs that pay more than minimum wage, mothers only have roughly $17,000 for the entire year. Praying that rent is $1,000 a month without utilities. I don’t need to continue. Please keep in mind that these statistics and configurations are hypothetical, and each circumstance is unique in itself. In many cases, working does not seem worth the cost of childcare alone. With prices of childcare rising, and women being looked to care for children, many mothers are forced to stay home.

            Examining factors other than pay, many mothers receive communal judgement for returning to work after having children. When asked to define what makes a “good mother”, 63% of surveyed moms said it was being there when the kids leave for school and come home at the end of the day.13 So what does this say for the working mothers? With more than half of women believing that what makes them a good mother is being home for their children to get off of the bus, imagine what women think of mothers who leave before their children wake up, or arrive home after dinner? While children are impacted positively by being surrounded by family and loved ones, this stereotype is very incorrect. A fifteen-year study was conducted that proved children who are solely cared for by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were cared for by multiple people.14 Being the sole carer for your child didn’t effect the outcome of your child; it made no difference. So why are women still criticized for not doing it? Attached below is a list of what mothers worry about when considering returning to work. Notice that most concerns are centered around motherhood:15  

The house will be dirty

I don’t have enough time with my partner

I will not be there for my children

It will make me a bad mother

I will miss out on quality “family time”

So, ask yourselves, how are women expected to succeed under these societal judgments? They aren’t even concerned with the work, or their own successes, but rather how their career will effect motherhood. A surplus of women convincing themselves that being absent for a school bus drop off makes them a bad mother; what do we say to the women that work double shifts to avoid child care? How can we compensate women who work over forty hours a week, to come home and care for the house and children? A rock and a hard place.

            Raising children is often known to be the hardest thing a person will do in their lifetime. We must ask ourselves, does raising a child constitute the end of a professional era for women? In many cases, the answer is yes. While many women around the country lead home and work lives perfectly, this does not diminish the women who cannot. We applaud mothers who have worked endlessly to ensure that they keep their careers while having children, but we must also fight for the women who do not have the same opportunities. In no way should we forget of the mothers who have managed to “do it all”, and they can be looked at as an example of how to crush stereotypes and defy all odds. But when does it end? When do we put down the do it all defense and break the wheel? Working mothers are often forced to reduce and/or rearrange work schedules, take time off of work, turn down occupational opportunities, and more due to high parental expectations that society places on mothers. These factors can cause women to suffer a reduction in paid, become laid off, fired, or forced to quit.

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1: Miller, Claire Cain. “The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Sept. 2014,

2. Budig, Michelle. “Motherhood Penalty by Unconditional Quantile, Adjusting for Age, Region, Population Density, with Person and Year Dummies.” ResearchGate, 2014,

3. “The Narrowing, but Persistent, Gender Gap in Pay.” Pew Research Center,

4. Sherman, Erik. “What Hurts Working Women Most, Going Childless or Having Kids?” Fortune, Fortune, 4 Dec. 2015,

5. “Charts by Topic: Household Activities.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20 Dec. 2016,

6. “State Family and Medical Leave Laws.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 2016,

7. “The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.” U.S. Department of Labor — Wage and Hour Division (WHD) — The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993,

8. “Parental Leave Systems.” OECD Family Database,

9. “Child Care Costs in the United States.” Economic Policy Institute, July 2019,

10. “Illinois Minimum Wage for 2020, 2021.” Federal and State Minimum Wage Rates for 2021,,and%20%2422%2C880.00%20per%20year1.

11. Wang, Jim, et al. “Average Income in America: What Salary in the United States Puts You in the Top 50%, Top 10%, and Top 1%? (Updated for 2019).” Wallet Hacks, 20 June 2019,

12. Wang, Jim, et al. “Average Income in America: What Salary in the United States Puts You in the Top 50%, Top 10%, and Top 1%? (Updated for 2019).” Wallet Hacks, 20 June 2019,

13. “What Moms Choose: The Working Mother Report.” Working Mother,

14. Care.”, “Child. “Child Care.” Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society,, 2019,

15. “The Experiences of Women Returning to Work after Maternity Leave.” NCT,

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