The Motherhood Penalty

Don't let parenthood stand in the way of pay raises and promotions

Back Article Mar 1, 2014 By Lindsay Broder

There’s a debate in workplaces about whether women who have children are subject to a professional disadvantage that other female co-workers don’t face. It’s called the motherhood penalty because mothers are said to be paid less, have fewer promotions, get smaller raises and be viewed as less reliable than women (and especially men) without children. There is some movement to change employment laws to specifically protect parents, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit around and hope lawmakers protect your career.

There are ways women can proactively immunize themselves if they believe they are facing the motherhood penalty.

The truth is, working mothers juggle two full-time jobs. There are only 24 hours in each day, and sometimes the penalty arises because choices are made to prioritize the job at home over the job in the office. While it might seem unfair, such choices often give employers the perception that a parent’s commitment is lacking.

But it is a choice. It is OK to be a full-time mother. It is OK to be fully committed to a career path. And it is OK — and possible — to do both without derailing either.

For women who fear facing financial or career penalties while parenting, it is important to be proactive. As with all career goals, the key is setting realistic expectations and communicating them effectively to others. Think of these following six points as a guide:

1. Know what ‘having it all’ means. Some people think they know what they’ll face when they decide to have a child and work full-time. Then reality sets in. You are not splitting your time 50/50. You are devoting 100 percent of yourself to two places. You have to consider how you will manage two full-time jobs simultaneously. If you decide you can handle all the requirements that your children and your workplace throw at you, understand that it will be hard work. Recognize that you will be making tradeoffs at times that others do not. The point is that you must be realistic from the beginning. Decide what’s right for you, and then honor that choice.

2. Plan. Plan. Plan. Parents have school visits, doctor visits, soccer games and more. You will have to come up with a strategy that designates who in your household will be responsible for which tasks or events, including emergencies. This takes some logistical know-how. Many parents don’t take these plans seriously and decide to figure it all out later. That approach is usually what causes professional problems down the line.

3. Communicate your commitment and plan to your office. Let your job know in interviews, meetings with your supervisors and visits to human resources that you are 100-percent committed to your career. Your employer will no doubt be concerned that you are splitting your time. Be upfront that you have a plan and that you are truly capable of giving your all to your job. You don’t have to give details about how you’re managing your personal affairs, just make it clear that you have the bases covered. That said, don’t be afraid to discuss ways in which you can increase opportunities to balance work and family; it’s likely that many of your supervisors and colleagues are parents as well.

4. Know what information to hold back. Usually, honesty is the best policy, but don’t air your dirty laundry. All your employer needs to know is that you are committed and that you have your parenting plan under control. You don’t have to go into detail. In fact, that can hurt you. When problems arise — and they will — discuss only those matters that need to be communicated to let your employer know you can do your job effectively. 

5. Solicit feedback from your employer. Your conduct and plan needs to fit in with the expectations of your boss. Remember: The motherhood penalty comes into play when employers perceive that you don’t have the commitment and drive to earn promotions or raises. That may not be true — and labor laws will prevent them from actually admitting that — but asking questions about your employer’s expectations is important (whether you’re a mother or not). Your employer will see your interest in the company’s needs as an added sign of your commitment.

Also, you might find that the company has plans where your skills and expertise can be helpful. Chances are, if their minds are at ease about your dependability, you’ll actually get raises and promotions because you fit in even better with the company’s goals.

6. Execute… and prove the naysayers wrong. After you make your choices and convey the necessary information to employers, make sure you go the extra mile to get the job done. It will hit your employer’s nerves if you take advantage of their willingness to offer a flexible schedule or time off to care for a sick child.

Stick to the agreement. The minute you feel it’s not working, rethink your plan. That doesn’t mean giving up the job. Rather, it may mean changing parenting responsibilities, adding more day care or making other sacrifices to keep your career on track. It also could mean having another conversation with your employer or HR department.

At all times, remain professional. Life sometimes throws us curveballs, but you have to maintain control. In fact, it goes without question that issues will arise outside of your plan. How you handle those could be a good way to show your employer that you can indeed manage the responsibility that you’ve been given. That kind of professional success will not only help you avoid any motherhood penalty, it might change perceptions in general of mothers in the workplace.                                                       


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