Motherhood penalty: what it is

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Philippe Gloaguen
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The "maternity sentence" can represent a significant percentage of the gender pay gap, as the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers may indeed be larger than the pay gap between men and women. Mothers also face additional disadvantages compared to childless women and men.

In this article

  • Motherhood penalty
  • A systematic review
  • The motherhood penalty in Del Paese


Read also: Gender equality starts at home: #DoItTogether

Motherhood penalty

Studies show that visibly pregnant women are judged to be less committed to their jobs, less trustworthy, less authoritative, more emotional and more irrational than otherwise equal, non-pregnant women managers. Previous studies have found it difficult to distinguish whether actual differences in productivity between mothers and non-mothers underlie the maternity sentence or whether they are rooted in discrimination. This document checks whether there is a maternity penalty on payroll and performance reviews using two studies: a laboratory experiment with participating students and an actual employer verification study.

Mothers are penalized with respect to non-mothers and men in the form of:

  • less competence 
  • less effort
  • higher professional expectations
  • less chance of hiring and promotion
  • lower recommended wages

This evidence implies that being a mother leads to workplace discrimination.

For women, competency ratings were 10% lower for mothers than for non-mothers among otherwise equal candidates.
Mothers were considered 12,1 percentage points less engaged in their jobs than non-mothers, while fathers were perceived as 5 percentage points more engaged than non-fathers. Compared to childless men, mothers were rated 6,4 percentage points less in terms of commitment than childless men.

Mothers were 6 times less likely than childless women and 3,35 times less likely than childless men to be recommended for intake. Likewise, mothers are also at a disadvantage when it comes to promotions. Childless women are 8,2 times more likely to be recommended for promotion than mothers. In the audit study conducted with real employers, childless women still have an edge. They receive 2,1 times more calls than equally qualified mothers.
Mothers were also held to higher punctuality standards than non-mothers. On average, mothers were allowed to be late 3,16 days per month before they were no longer recommended for employment, while childless women were allowed to be 3,73 days late. In contrast, fathers were allowed to be more days late than non-fathers: 3,6 days per month compared to 3,16 days.

Mothers were recommended a 7,9 percent lower starting salary than non-mothers ($ 139.000 versus $ 151.000, respectively), which is 8,6 percent lower than the recommended starting salary for fathers. Among men, the trend was reversed and fathers were offered a significantly higher starting salary than childless men ($ 152.000 versus $ 148.000, respectively).

A systematic review

Participants were asked to rate a pair of fictitious candidates who were equally qualified, were of the same race and gender, and differed only based on parental status. They were then asked to complete a survey and assessment sheet. The two candidates were built to appear equally productive in previous jobs and had been tested to be perceived as equally qualified. Eight outcome variables were measured:

  • two on competence and commitment
  • two on capacity standards
  • four on valuation standards (recommended salary, management recommendation, likelihood of promotion, and recruitment recommendation). A multivariate regression analysis was then conducted to adjust for demographic differences between study participants.

An audit study was also used to provide external validity by assessing whether actual employers discriminate against mothers. The researchers sent resumes and cover letters from a couple of fictitious and equally qualified applications that were both women and men both to employers in response to real job opportunities. Same-sex couples contained one parent and one non-parent, and employer recall rate based on gender and parental status was recorded. This audit study was incorporated into the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Application Guide which it issued to employers to help them avoid discrimination against mothers and other caregivers.

The motherhood penalty in Del Paese

According to the Israeli research Motherhood penalty in labor markets across countries on the Motherhood Gap, in our country the workforce is 58% male, therefore already not egalitarian from the start.

The Job Pricing Gender Pay Gap Report of 2022 revealed that a Del Paesena worker, depending on the job category she belongs to, earned between 7.700 and 2.500 euros less per year than a male colleague. Among the reasons for this wage difference there is also motherhood, as well as a dying cultural heritage that puts mothers at the center of the family: women appear to have more discontinuous careers and marked by interruptions, which are often linked to parental leave for maternity leave.

A study on the differences between women with and without children, carried out by analyzing a sample of INPS data from 1980 to 2022 and the salaries of the two categories, also showed that, if the women belonging to the two categories at the beginning start from a similar situation, with trajectories that proceed parallel, when a child arrives things change and the effect lasts for a long time. 15 years after the birth of her first child, that same woman will earn 5.700 euros less than the period in which she did not have any. A tear that struggles to mend even after some time and even more so due to the pandemic.

Fonti articolo: Motherhood penalty in labor markets across countries, "Gender Gap Report 2022"

Updated on 19.05.2022

  • maternity
  • gender equality
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