How the motherhood penalty is widening the gender pay gap

The average hourly salary of mothers in the UK is only 72% of that earned by fathers, recent data has revealed. This means the gap is even worse than 50 years ago! This glaring disparity unveils the profound impact of the 'motherhood penalty,' casting a long shadow over gender equality in the workforce. 

What is the motherhood penalty?

The motherhood penalty refers to the systematic disadvantage experienced by mothers in the working world, particularly resulting in lower salaries and stunted career prospects. There are many contributing factors to the motherhood penalty, such as conscious and unconscious biases towards mothers in the workplace, a lack of family-friendly policies, and interruptions to career progression. Mothers experience a notable decline in earning potential as a result of societal perceptions, workplace biases, and structural challenges associated with motherhood. Ultimately, these issues are contributing to the ever-growing gender pay gap and must be addressed. As a business leader, there are many actions you can take to help combat the motherhood penalty, such as introducing family-friendly policies, running employee resource groups and mentorships, and providing salary transparency, and childcare support. 

What are the key contributing factors to the motherhood penalty? 

1. Biases and stereotypes 

Societal biases and gender stereotypes play a pivotal role in the motherhood penalty. Preconceived notions about women's caregiving responsibilities can lead to assumptions that mothers are less committed to their careers, resulting in discriminatory practices within the workplace. This has been coined the ‘maternal wall bias’ and typically comes from hiring teams, colleagues, and managers.  

A 2018 study reinforces our understanding of these shocking assumptions about mothers. Surveying over 50,000 individuals in 18 countries, researchers found there to be an assumption that the children and families of women who work suffer as a consequence. It also revealed a common assumption that men are expected to earn and provide for families, while women take care of the home. This was even the case in countries with more progressive parental leave policies, such as Sweden and Canada, and shows the prevalence of an extremely damaging ideology for women in work.  

2. Career interruptions 

Many mothers face interruptions in their careers due to maternity leave or taking time off to care for their children. These career breaks can contribute to the motherhood penalty by hindering continuous career progression, skill development, and the accumulation of work experience.  

While this is the case in many instances, numerous organisations are making waves to break the stigma surrounding career breaks, for any reason. At FDM, we firmly believe that a career break can be an asset, making individuals even more employable due to the wealth of skills obtained in non-work-related environments. Such examples include parenting skills or volunteering work. In fact, hiring returners can improve business prospects across the board and close skills gaps. That’s why we’re committed to helping returning mothers find their way back to work with expert training and placements with our leading clients. Learn more about our consultant services

3. Part-time work and flexibility needs 

Mothers often seek part-time work or flexible schedules to balance their professional and caregiving responsibilities. While these arrangements are sometimes essential for work-life balance and caring duties, especially for single parents, they can lead to reduced earning potential and limited access to opportunities for career advancement. 

Another study, in STEM specifically, found that 28% of new parents leave full-time work after having a baby. Overall, 43% of women and 23% of men choose to switch fields, transition to part-time, or leave work altogether. This reveals that women are more likely to reduce their work hours or leave the workforce entirely compared to fathers, however, it also suggests that parenthood also has an impact on fathers to some extent. 

4. Lack of family-friendly policies 

Inadequate family-friendly policies within organisations, such as limited parental leave or a lack of support for flexible work arrangements, contribute significantly to the motherhood penalty. A lack of policies accommodating the diverse needs of working parents exacerbates the challenges faced by mothers in the workforce. 

5. Unequal division of household labour and archaic domestic responsibilities 

The unequal distribution of household labour, where women often shoulder a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities, amplifies the challenges faced by mothers in the workplace. This imbalance can lead to women experiencing increased stress and mental load, time constraints, and difficulties in maintaining a successful career trajectory compared to men, especially for mothers whose domestic duties encompass childcare as well. 

The statistics speak for themselves: the Gender Equality Index reveals that approximately 91% of women with children as part of a couple spend at least an hour per day on housework, compared to just 30% of men with children in a couple. For employed individuals specifically, women spend about 2.3 hours daily on housework and men spend 1.6 hours, which is around 30% less! 

How does the motherhood penalty impact the gender pay gap? 

According to PwC’s 2023 Women in Work Index, it will take at least 50 years for OECD countries to reach gender pay equality. If these estimations are correct, that would mean an 18-year-old woman now entering the workforce will not experience equal pay in her working life. Despite significant pressure having been put on CEOs to improve diversity within these countries, the gender pay gap has unfortunately widened in recent years. But why? 

The motherhood penalty significantly contributes to the gender pay gap, exacerbating disparities between the earnings of mothers and their male or childless female counterparts. For one, mothers often experience salary reductions compared to their pre-motherhood earnings or the earnings of childless women and men. This reduction in hourly wages contributes directly to the gender pay gap across sectors and the globe. On top of this, the career break that comes with taking time out to have and care for children reduces the number of years of work experience you have, which can also lower job prospects and put women at a disadvantage when it comes to job interviews. 

Something must change, and soon! Let’s delve into the actions you can take as a business leader and employer to help minimise the motherhood penalty and make strides towards equal pay for all… 

10 strategies to solve the Motherhood Penalty 

1. Inclusive policies 

It is imperative that all organisations develop and implement family-friendly policies that support employees through various life stages, including parenthood. Ensure that maternity and paternity leave policies are comprehensive, offering adequate time off work with job security. This makes maternity or paternity leave much less stressful for employees and also sends a strong message as an organisation that you value the diverse needs of your workforce. 

2. Mentorship programmes 

Establish mentorship programmes to provide guidance and support to employees, particularly women and mothers, to help them navigate their careers - especially postpartum or post-maternity leave. Mentors can offer insights, share experiences, help mentees overcome barriers, and advocate for them within the organisation. This can be particularly useful for mothers facing bias and prejudice in the workplace. 

3. Flexible work arrangements 

We understand that not every business can accommodate remote working, however, if appropriate for your organisation, embracing flexible work arrangements can be beneficial for new mothers. Providing flexibility accommodates the needs of working parents. Enabling them to balance professional and caregiving responsibilities effectively.  

4. Childcare support 

Again, this will not be possible for every organisation, however, offering on-site childcare facilities can help ease the burden on working parents. Alternatively, provide guidance to all employees to make them aware of childcare options in the local area and information regarding subsidies fees. Accessible and affordable childcare options help mothers remain engaged in their careers without compromising on their child’s wellbeing.  

5. Salary transparency 

Foster transparency in salary structures to eliminate gender-based salary disparities. Regularly review and disclose salary information to ensure that employees, especially mothers, receive fair compensation for their skills and contributions to the business. We highly recommend conducting a gender pay gap report on an annual basis and publishing this publically for all your employees to see. In fact, for some organisations, this is a legal requirement. Learn more about gender pay gap reporting to see if your organisation falls within this category.  

6. Anti-bias training 

Provide ongoing anti-bias training for employees and higher management teams to recognise and combat unconscious biases related to motherhood. Sensitise staff to the challenges faced by working parents and emphasise the importance of equal treatment and opportunities for career growth. 

7. Promotion of healthy work-life balance 

Encourage a healthy work-life balance to enhance the well-being of employees. Recognise and celebrate accomplishments both inside and outside of the workplace and foster a culture that respects personal time and achievements. This way, you can create an environment where mothers feel supported and valued for their authentic selves.  

8. Employee resource groups 

Introduce employee resource groups (ERGs) focused on patenting or work-life balance more generally. These groups provide a platform for employees to connect with one another, share their experiences, seek advice, and advocate for supportive policies. For example, employee feedback from ERGs can inform organisational strategies to address the motherhood penalty with the help of those with lived experiences and are likely to drive actionable change. 

9. Equal opportunities for career advancement

Implement policies that ensure equal opportunities for career advancement, irrespective of gender, parental status, or background. Evaluate performance based on merit and skills rather than assumptions about commitment related to caregiving responsibilities. Unconscious bias training for hiring managers and line managers can be particularly useful for this, helping break down barriers related to career advancement and contributing to the motherhood penalty.  

10. Continuous evaluation and improvement 

Employee needs are always changing so it is important that you regularly assess the effectiveness of implemented strategies and be open to feedback from employees to constantly improve. Modify and enhance policies based on the evolving needs of the workplace and show your organisation’s commitment to your employees, making it an equitable workplace for all, doing your part to combat the motherhood penalty, and closing the gender pay gap.

This has been a guest blog for Tech Talent Charter by the FDM group, who are a Signatory of the Tech Talent Charter. For more resources on Gender equality in the workplace, Parents and the Motherhood Penalty, please visit the Tech Talent Charter's D&I Open Playbook.