The motherhood penalty: It’s not children that slow mothers down

There are fewer women at the top because they have a different work/life balance than men, it is claimed. Mothers’ careers progress slowly because they are mothers — because they have to spend more time on their children.

There’s some appeal in this explanation; it seems intuitively correct. Mothers have greater childcare responsibilities than fathers. And while we may hope for a different division of labor some day, we speculate that these work/life realities explain why women who are mothers are on slower career tracks than men.

It’s the realities of daily life behind the statistics that in fact explain the statistics. Correlation becomes causation. But that’s a mistake in how we think. There’s more to the story.

New evidence on womens’ careers is presented in the White Paper on the Position of Women in Science in Spain. A man with children, the report concludes, is four times more likely to become a full professor than is a woman with children.

When comparing men and women with the same personal and professional characteristics, the same academic productivity, and both with children, we see that having children affects women much more negatively: a man with children is 4 times more likely to be promoted to Full Professor than a woman with children.

But instead of invoking the intuitive explanation mentioned above, the white paper emphasizes that women who have children are discriminated against simply because they are mothers and not because their job performance is actually different.

Researchers from Cornell University published evidence of this. The article Getting a job: Is there a Motherhood Penalty, by Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik, appears in the American Journal of Sociology (2007).

Participants in their study rated fictitious job applicants by reading constructed files. Some resumés they read included Parent-Teacher Association coordinator as an activity, while others had Fundraiser for neighbor association. This had been shown by another researcher to successfully convey whether someone is a parent or not.

The applicants were rated on competency and commitment, and the results are clear.

Mothers were judged as significantly less competent and committed than women without children… Mothers were also held to harsher performance and punctuality standards. Mothers were allowed significantly fewer times of being late to work, and they needed a significantly higher score on the management exam than non-mothers before being considered hirable.

As if this weren’t enough, when they did hire mothers, the subject participants gave them a 7% lower starting salary than the non-mothers, and considered them less well-suited for future promotion. All this was determined on the basis of a paper file!

Part of the story, both in the Spanish study and in Correll et al.’s article, is about men; I blog about that separately in The fatherhood bonus: Have a child and advance your career.

The conclusion about women is that having children does indeed correlate with one’s career path. Mothers are less likely to be promoted than men, and they are also less likely to be promoted than non-mothers.

But this happens for irrational reasons; children do not cause this difference. The explanation is not simply that mothers work less because they have more to do at home. An important part of the explanation is that the very fact of being a mother is perceived as a disqualification.

Leadership in organizations must acknowledge implicit discrimination and must take specific steps to counter it. There are many possible strategies; targets are just one.

I remember a professor from graduate school speaking once about another graduate student who was expecting a child. He commented on her career simply by saying, “She’s made her choice.”

But maybe she hadn’t; maybe we’d made it for her.

Related entry: There are only three reasons women don’t make it to the top


  1. Francesca says:

    I remember the head of my department saying while I was pregnant … so you chose for family and not for career … I could have brought him to court, but women are way too smart to take those kinds of comments seriously! Those comments actually boost ambitions!

    • I’m glad to hear you have such a constructive reaction. It’s the only way to win, given the way things are today!

    • I’m glade you think that. I am sure you made an excellent mother.

      Far too many people think that popping out a baby and feeding is it about all there is to being a parent. “Good mum/Bad mum” syndrome is rife and somehow it has led to a situation where we tell women they should be able to do both. Well technically they can, and all the while the family unit breaks down. And we wonder why the humanity and decency has gone from our society!

      On a side note, I find it very hard to believe that men are conspiring to hold back women in their careers. Capitalism only follows the money. If someone makes you more money, you use them. The bottom line has and always will be profit.

      I think everyone (rich/poor, men/women, black/white, weak/strong etc) should just shut up with the moaning and looking for excuses. Everyone gets dealt a different hand, so just shut up and play!

  2. This was very interesting. My acquaintances from Hungary complain that it is young women without children that are in the worst position on the job market — simply because employers expect that they will get pregnant in a couple of years. The maternity leave (up to 3 yrs in Hungary) is inconvenient for the employer, they have to find a temporary replacement and they are legally obliged to rehire the young mother when the maternity leave is over. They just don’t want go through this trouble, so they actually prefer hiring women who have already been on maternity leave. I am not sure if this is a general tendency, though.

    • Toussaint Y. HONVOU says:

      This idea is true. In Africa, the same thing is happend. Because of pregnant, some entrepreneurs refuse to get job to young girls.
      How to change this habits?
      Toussaint Y. HONVOU
      From Beni Republic

    • Charlie says:

      I see nothing wrong with this. Why the hell would a company want to hire someone, lose them for 3 years, then hire them back. Its much smarter to just get someone you know will be around for a bit.

      • Right! That’s why it’s called going to WORK for a BUSINESS and not getting away from the kids and getting paid for it too.

      • Princesscat says:

        Seems obvious to hire the non-moms to fill the moms positions and/or regularly swap moms in need of leave for moms in a position to work. Whats the problem?

      • It’s wrong when you’re 30 and don’t want kids. Employers will assume you’ll get pregnant in a few years and don’t want to hire you > missed opportunities on both sides.

  3. I have seen many women suffer from “the motherhood penalty” as you put it, yet there is still so much denial about it where it does exist. Even before I had children I experienced this early in my career when I got married – I was told they were holding back my promotion because I would probably be getting pregnant soon. I chose to move on from that organization. Yet that was not the case in every organization I worked for or have worked with since. I wonder if there is a significant difference in the magnitude of this issue between the US and Europe today

    • Thanks for that story, Susan. I think there is tremendous variation in Europe. In the comment above yours, Eva tells a story like yours from Hungary. Here in Norway, I think the public attitudes are a little different — at least when directly expressed. And fathers now have to take a couple months of leave, too, so it doesn’t just affect women, even though they tend to have longer leaves than men. But, as you suggest, the first step is raising awareness — which I like to do by trying to find the relevant research!

      • I think removing maternity/paternity leave would help with this discrimination. If a company wasn’t forced to pay someone for doing nothing they might be more receptive to people of childbearing age.

        • Paula Cragg says:

          By the time women decide to have children, most of them have a great deal of working experience and qualifications, valuable to the work place. This actually increases after having a child, greater time management, prioritization etc, don’t throw the employee out with the bath water!

        • Childbearing is what renews society, and employers need to remember that they are employing human beings who are part of families and who want to create their own families. They are not robots who should sacrifice their lives for the sake of maximizing company productivity. Three years is a long maternity leave and could be cut back, as that doesn’t seem fair to employers, but there should be a leave of one year minimum. A better and more equal solution is to offer fathers one year as well. The fact that both men and women have the potential to take one year off to look after their children will even the playing field.

  4. Thanks for the article, it’s interesting & important.
    Just a remark to the comment by Eva: It seems that women in Hungary are luckier than in Israel where mothers are given much shorter birth leave (2.5 mnth):
    Of course, this can be extended to a year, but many women prefer to return to work because of financial/career reasons.

    • Thanks, Lena. I’m quite sure the leave in Hungary is without a salary. Norway is leading on that point, where couples get a year of paid leave to divide more or less as they see fit, although fathers are required to take several weeks, I think 2 months.

  5. Thanks for sharing your insights, Curt. Sadly, I have also seen very successful women fall into this trap regarding the seriousness or ambitions of women for the choices they make. I’m happy to see this changing with the whole work-life debate that includes men. With enabling technologies, the way we work has been shifting and we have more flexibility in how and when we work. The cultural changes in mindsets move much too slowly. When women are so easily sidelined there is a serious human capital loss where society is denied the benefits of their full talents. We see this issue now affecting men as those who
    choose to be more involved in the lives of their children are also penalized for the choices they make. As more of us see the problem as a societal one, I’m hopeful for more progress. We do owe it to the next generations to eliminate these myopic perceptions. Thank you for helping to do this.

    • Thank you for those encouraging words, Deb. The human capital point is very important. We can’t draw 80% of the “top” from 50% of the pool and think that we’re getting the very best we have. Let’s keep pushing ahead, and progress will become inevitable!

  6. This is an (unfortunately) enlightening post. It certainly shows how far we have left to go.

  7. Hi Curt-

    I agree with the dominant findings of research on women, careers, wage gaps, maternity penalties, etc. that there (1) are patterns of discrimination against women and mothers, (2) patterns of preference for men and fathers, and that (3) these patterns are due to social factors, not biological factors.

    So, I was pretty surprised by this study that suggests a “bump” for women who return from maternity leaves– the idea is that, by returning, a new mom shows she’s actually committed to her career (surprise! ? ). Here’s the link:

    The finding is an inverse application of the same stereotype… valorizing and making heroic a mother’s choice to work, rather than seeing it as normal.

    I found the data & study to be somewhat weak, and I haven’t seen it replicated anywhere, but I think their finding fits into a larger picture– Organizations use gendered stereotypes to evaluate women’s career potential, and this ultimately hurts women.


  8. Adriana Blanco says:

    Being women today is complicate, we have education, we want to have a good job and a family. I remember when I told my boss I will marry, he congratulate me and then he asked me when I´ll quite.
    In Mexico if you want to have a high position you do not take holidays or work less than 10 hours per day. I worked 7 years without holidays.
    I was pregnant when I was recruited to another organization, my new boss was amazing and I worked until 3 weeks before my delivery, and restart to work from my house 3 days after de delivery.
    The question for many women is: job or family? In many companies and careers in almost imposible have a balance.
    Susan Pinker at “Sexual Paradox” explain part of this problem and how the male and female brains works.

  9. Gillian Ramchand says:

    I agree with the general point, but I take issue with the Cornell 2007 study results. I don’t think it was a good study. What the raters of the resumes were reacting to was not the fact of a woman having children or not, but the factor of writing down Parent-Teachers Association in the activities portion of your resume. I would never do that. I would consider my personal life irrelevant to my job application and none of the business of the interviewers. I would think that a woman who put that on her resume was a little clueless about the job market, and I would implicitly mark her down. I would think that a man who put that on his resume was being a little self-conscious about gender breaking and I might implicitly mark him up. So this study is about SOMETHING (judging the professionalism of someone who inhabits the same unfair gender world that you do) but not about penalizing women just for having a child in the first place. I would like to see a better study on this.

    • There are always methodological questions, to be sure. In this case, they adopted the “Parent-Teacher Association” thing from someone else who had a whole elaborate riff on this methodology. I’ll go check out that article and get back to you.

      Having said that, in the last three years, I’ve seen some non-academic hirings at closer range than before, and it turns out it’s totally normal for people in interviews to be asked about the extracurricular interests. Who knows how wise or legal that is, but there you have it. And this kind of thing gets mentioned by people — and family structures certainly get mentioned directly.

    • Maria Rosales says:

      Crucially, this mention of the PTA was also part of a random sample of the men’s resumes. So they could test for the difference between a woman mentioning it and a man mentioning it.

  10. My employment contract was ended during my 7th month of pregnancy. I knew I was hired as a casual employee, however,during the interview, my supervisor and I discussed staying me staying at least a year with a 6 month review. Upon hire, I was never told I had a hour limitation before I would max out of the contract (which ended up being 980 hours and I completed this in ~10 months). Two months before I wanted to take maternity leave, I emailed my team and told them the date I would take leave. A few days later I was called into my supervisors office and was told that my contract was ending and would not be renewed. I was shocked because I was unaware of the hour limitation. I am sure it was due to the pregnancy but my employer did not have to give a reason due to me being a causal employee. I was a diligent,thorough and hard working employee. I got projects up and running smoothly and quickly. My co-supervisors, that I was not on projects with asked to have me join theirs. Towards the end, due to my success, I was assigned a heavy load of projects and even to create a huge program that I finished before I left. All of these were abruptly halted after me mentioning my maternity leave, even my co-supervisors were shocked and came to talk to me regarding my head supervisors decision.

    In the US maternity leave is 6 weeks, which is a ridiculous time to try and nurse and bond with your baby. I asked for 10 weeks off, which is not a huge stretch. I have an enormous amount of experience in my field and I think it was foolish of them to decide to want to hire someone new and have to train them it would take the same time for them to have them at my level or find the specific candidate rather than waiting for me to return.

    The positive side is, as a mother, there’s nothing more priceless than spending time with your child. BUT, I am lucky to have a husband that can support me. I have not always been so lucky and I can’t imagine how much more frustrated I would have been if I were a single mom. Taking time off, although I think is healthy and necessary, it can slow down progression of obtaining skills. This is hard to compare because people are at different levels when taking family leave. I am interested in how many people this has happened to since I have read other articles online. If you could please answer the poll and help generate statistics for women’s issues I’d be much obliged.

  11. Aleksandra Petric says:

    Structural and systemic discrimination of women is global pandemic, I would say some societies reflect it more openly, while some find subtle ways to hide it. However, regardles of matrix the essence is the same – patriarchy is so much embedied into job market and professional life that it make almost impossible for women to professionally compete with men. What strikes me is that majority of women accept these “rules of the game” and believe they are natural consequence of being woman and mother.
    I do not have magical cure for this, but one thing is certain – both women and men have to engage in fight, through doing things that will tackle these unvritten rules.

  12. Thank you for taking issue with the idea of “choice” and whether it is made in complete freedom.

    Many women will claim that they’ve made a choice to dedicate themselves to their families themselves. Some even will say that they feel fortunate that they “don’t have to work”, or that their husbands “gave them a choice”. But in a work environment which is structurally unfavorable towards women to begin with, and even more so with mothers, this “choice” is often deeply conditioned and driven by factors that often remain unnamed and unnoticed.

    We need to begin with questioning the statement “Mothers have greater childcare responsibilities than fathers.” There is really no reason why this should be the case, as fathers are obviously just as capable of child-rearing as mothers. So long as we continue to accept that child-rearing is primarily a woman’s responsibility, women will continue to face discrimination in the workplace. This begins with parental leave being more generous for the mother, which is a major source of hiring discrimination for adult women.

    • My experience was that my husband’s wages were significantly higher than my teacher wages. Therefore when we decided one of us would stay home, I logically took the home job. However, 12 years later when my potential earnings increased, he cut back his work hours and took on the job of house dad and enjoyed it. Raising children should be a strong commitment for both parents but circumstances certainly dictate the division of responsibilities.
      We both enjoyed our careers – I guess we got lucky.

  13. Adrienne Murphy says:

    If the resumes were for male applicants rather than female would a similar bias in evaluation exist? Are males equally sharing the second shift with partners promoted at the same rate as males who do not, or males who have no children?

    • In the study I mentioned in this posting, the method was to construct resumes, and then change them in small ways before presenting them to a number of evaluators. One of the ways in which they were modified was the name, i.e. whether the person was to be construed as male or female. That change alone led to different evaluations, so the way I understand that research, the answer to your first question would be negative. That is, the bias is eliminated by changing the resume to have a man’s name instead of a woman’s name. As for the 2nd shift, I assume you mean housework and family duties. The question is then whether or not the partners of women who are in fact getting promoted do better at sharing that work than the partners of women who are not getting promoted. Have I understood you correctly? That is a very interesting question, and I’m going to look around to see if I find anything on it.

      • Adrienne Murphy says:

        Hi Curt,

        Thank you for your response. The first answer indicates that evaluators may perceive fathers’ active involvement in child care as influencing work effort to a lesser degree than mothers’ similar involvement. Correct on item 2, women with partners who actively participate in home care, family duties may be promoted faster than women without that support. Finally men who do not participate in home/family duties may be promoted faster than men who are actively engaged at work and home. An interesting sub-populaiton for research purposes in the United States are families of Indian heritage where statistically more homes are dual career, with men sharing more of the home/family burden.

  14. Well, where I work (at a uni in Australia), young women in my area take half year off on full pay to have children as soon as they’re entitled to it (after a minimum continuous 12 months work). Males are given two weeks’ parental leave when they have a new born child. Most of the women academics in my area have taken paid and unpaid maternity and parental leave after each twelve months service, and openly state that they’re using the system for their family planning. On return to work, these women normally demand preferential treatement in how workload is allocated, citing their parental status as the reason why they should enjoy different work conditions (mostly, they seek ‘lighter’ duties). Some don’t show up at the office for weeks, stating that they’re working from home to suit their family circumstances. Of course, no one is daring to object – you see, the maternity/parenting thing is now sacred and no one is game objecting to having their work increased because a colleague who happens to be female decides to have children. I don’t actually object to women being supported in respect to maternity/parental aspects, I object to having to pick up their work all the time and then to read that women are somehow disadvantaged in blogs like these.

    • It is a shame that you have had this experience, but I think it is a rather broad generalisation to say that most women who return from maternity leave have this attitude. I also find the assumption that working from home equates somehow to “not working” or “working less” a bit offensive in general. I have worked in an office and at home and find I get significantly more done at home. Also, at home or in the office I am significantly more productive than the majority. I don’t see anyone not being hired because they smoke or even asked about their smoking status, despite the smokers in my office leaving every 30 minutes for a 5-10-20 minute smoke break. All the women I know who came back to work in my office after maternity leave were more efficient during their working time, with better time management skills and were calmer in the face of stress than before they became mothers.

  15. So are we going to start blaming men for basic biology?
    Firstly most men who have kids don’t get to see them because their ex-partner only had them inorder to trap him into a financial relationship for child support allowance while she lives with other men!
    Secondly men are not the ones having the children physically, of course giving birth is going to affect your career!
    But most importantly, a career is nothing! We only exist to raise children, which is much more rewarding than sucking-off your boss all day!
    Who in their right mind would trade kids for a job? Only someone who has been brainwashed into thinking that a career is important!

  16. Deanna Brown says:

    This is a complex issue.

    First is the problem that even in two career families, most of the time women have primary responsibility for the home and children. In my experience this is usually true even when the woman makes more money and/or has the more demanding career. This is one issue that needs to be addressed. Men and women are still splitting up domestic duties the way their parents and grandparents did, even though they no longer split up the breadwinning duties that way. We need to be teaching the next generation to expect equality on BOTH fronts.

    Because of the first problem, you have the simple fact that many women with children cannot devote as much time to their jobs, and may need more flexibility, than men with children or anyone without children. It’s a simple fact that I am unable to work 80 hours a week like many of my colleagues do, or travel on short notice. I simply can’t compete with my childless colleagues or those who are fathers and may go a week without even seeing their children while their wives handle everything. Of course that brings up the question of whether it’s reasonable for anyone to be expected to work 80 hours a week on a regular basis, so that’s yet another facet of this issue.

    Another major part of the issue is the bias discussed in the article – because there are many working moms who also shoulder the majority of the home responsibilities and it affects their work, employers generalize and make the assumption that ALL working moms are unable to fulfill the requirements of their jobs. They assume this even for women who have a stay at home spouse, or who have made careful arrangements for backup childcare, or who have more equitable divisions of labor with their spouses. As with all forms of stereotyping, we must guard against this. It is human nature to try to form generalizations; however, it is also clearly unfair to judge one person by the actions of another person that they share some superficial characteristics with.

    There are lots of different angles to attack this from. Ideally, couples would split up the total amount of work, both paid and at home, fairly equally, regardless of whether they are a two income family or one stays at home. Ideally, no company would expect so much out of their employees that it can’t possibly be done by people who have responsibilities outside of their jobs. Ideally each person would be judged based on their own ability to do the job rather than placed in a category and judged by other people’s performances. We’ve got a way to go.

  17. Thank you for sharing this info – interesting findings. We understand too well about the ‘the motherhood penality’ and how women in general are discriminated in the workplace – that’s why we started Digital Mums.


  1. [...] entry: The motherhood penalty: It’s not children that slow mothers down LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

  2. [...] know how it works for women. There is a motherhood penalty, and it’s not related to performance; evaluation in laboratory settings of otherwise [...]

  3. [...] his recent pieces on gender parity in academia. The previous week, he had posted on why the so-called motherhood penalty for women. That one won’t surprise you. But the post below tells the other side of the story: [...]

  4. [...] are structural, such as the subjectivity of peer evaluation or the implicit prejudice yielding a motherhood penalty. Identify individuals who are motivated to advance, and then develop strategies for maneuvering [...]

  5. [...] with mothers persistently seen as less dedicated than fathers or childless women. In his article “The motherhood penalty: It’s not children that slow mothers down”, Curt Rice observes that “women who have children are discriminated against simply because [...]

  6. [...] studies, imaginary employees who are described as being parents are evaluated quite differently: mothers are penalised for having children while fathers are [...]

  7. [...] example: in a society where discrimination by employers means that working mothers pay a “motherhood penalty” in wages and career advancement, while working fathers get a “fatherhood bonus“, [...]

  8. [...] at the top is that of a man or a woman. If you add to the profile that the woman is a mother, the applicant is held to a higher standard than men or women without children — and let’s not get started on the career benefits [...]

  9. [...] Women more than men see great sacrifice as a prerequisite for success in academia. This comes in part from their perception of women who have succeeded, from the nature of the available role models. Successful female professors are perceived by female Ph.D. candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless. [...]

  10. [...] post about why women run away from academia (it’s too hard), which led me to this post about how mothers have a real disadvantage when it comes to careers. Also, there was this article that argued how hard it is to even prepare for a job application in [...]

  11. [...] Here’s one clue from Curt Rice, this time from the perspective of women being held back by motherhood in the workforce. The findings are very troubling: Participants in their study rated fictitious job applicants by reading constructed files. Some resumés they read included Parent-Teacher Association coordinator as an activity, while others had Fundraiser for neighbor association. This had been shown by another researcher to successfully convey whether someone is a parent or not. [...]

  12. [...] Then, there’s the latest findings, in Spain, which show that there is a bias not just against women scientists, but against mothers, so that with equal qualifications and achievements they get fewer jobs, and lower salaries. Curt Rice has a nice discussion of that here. [...]

  13. [...] Women matter reports research results on a number of other topics, including the slow thaw for women, the double-burden syndrome, gender differences on self-promotion, and variation in family structures among successful women and men (raising the spectre of a motherhood penalty). [...]

  14. [...] know how it works for women. There is a motherhood penalty, and it’s not related to performance; evaluation in laboratory settings of otherwise identical [...]

  15. […] about pointing to motherhood as the cause of unequal opportunities for early career researchers. According to Curt Rice, it is not  the basic biological and sociological reality of motherhood that disqualifies female […]

Speak Your Mind