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Oct 12, 2021
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Covid isn’t going away. That’s what the infectious disease experts tell us. Instead of trying to eradicate it, the hope is that with enough vaccinations and natural immunity, we’ll reach a point where it will be like the common cold or flu. But what about other societal problems created or exacerbated by the pandemic? Are those staying with us too? Because if that’s the case, then from a standpoint of social equality — or inequality, as it were — we are in trouble. 

We know that one form of inequality that the pandemic has compounded is gender disparity in the workplace. For instance, as a direct result of the pandemic, 1 in 4 women considered, or are considering, downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely. 

Many did leave, or were forced to leave, and by January of this year, women’s labor force participation hit a 33-year low

This exodus has undone literally decades of progress, taking us back to 1988 standards. Women leaving the workplace has cost all of us in dollars too. In 2020 alone, American Women’s workforce exits cost the U.S. economy $650 billion and globally cost the world at least $800 billion in lost income in one year. 

If we’re to address this, however, we need to understand the cause, and a significant part of the cause is a phenomenon known as the Motherhood Penalty.

What Is the Motherhood Penalty?     

It’s what it sounds like: a penalty imposed on working mothers, though the term should really be Motherhood Penalties. Plural, since there’s a multiplicity of overt and subtle forms that these penalties take.

To start with, mothers are paid less at only 75 cents for every dollar paid to fathers (which is lower than women overall at 82 cents and exceeds $15,000 annually). It is much worse for mothers of color, with Latinx mothers earning the least at 46 cents for every dollar. Mothers working outside of the home are also promoted less often and less likely to be hired in the first place, six times less likely than childless women and 3.35 times less likely than childless men. 

Corresponding with the lower pay, hiring, and promotion rates is a perception that working mothers are somehow less competent and committed than childless women or men. This, despite the fact that mothers are actually more productive at work than non-mothers. 

Mothers, as well as women in general, also have a higher chance of getting laid off or fired than men across pay grades. This was true  both before and during the pandemic. Part of this may be because mothers are overrepresented in “pink-collar” jobs, or jobs oriented around a form of care or service such as nursing, teaching, hospitality, and childcare. Not only do pink-collar jobs typically pay less than both white- and blue-collar jobs, these sectors were hit harder during the pandemic, resulting in many women getting furloughed or laid off. But even in industries where women represent a smaller percentage of the workforce, they were nevertheless disproportionately laid off

Finally, working mothers are penalized if they need job flexibility to attend to childcare-related needs. Conversely, working fathers are rewarded when they require flexibility for the same reason, and they are also paid more than men who are not fathers. This is called the “fatherhood premium.”    

The Role of Implicit Bias in the Motherhood Penalty

Unfair organizational practices don’t emerge out of a vacuum. The root source is culture. We have deeply embedded beliefs and underlying biases that shape and define our beliefs about motherhood in relation to work. As already mentioned, mothers are perceived as being less competent and committed just by virtue of being mothers. They are also three times as likely as fathers to be the main parent responsible for childcare and housework even in households where both parents are working full-time. They are also twice as likely to worry about their work performance being judged negatively as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. As a result, during the pandemic mothers experienced higher levels of psychological distress relating to the burden of care as compared to fathers.

The societal pressures and implicit biases against mothers, as with assuming that mothers should be the main parents in charge of childcare, are ironic given the ways they are penalized while essentially trying to fulfill those expectations. This essentially puts women in a no-win situation and may be a factor behind why many have opted to just leave the workplace entirely. 

For example, for those not working outside of the home, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely to not be working due to childcare demands.

Motherhood penalties also belie the notion that women are leaving the workforce because they want to. The combined weight of societal expectations combined with unfair organizational practices do not amount to a fair choice for mothers faced with the need to provide care for children while lacking the supporting infrastructure they need to continue working.

Implicit biases against mothers specifically are rooted in implicit biases against women as a whole. Nearly 75% of adults and children — regardless of gender!associate higher intellectual ability with men than women. And 76% of both men and women feel that men are better suited for careers while women are better suited for domestic labor

These deep, often unconscious assumptions about women’s abilities and societal roles then get reflected in the workplace where all women, mothers or not, face an uphill struggle at work due to disparities in pay and career advancement.

The Need to Model Behavior and Communicate Clearly     

Losing so much of the progress we had been making toward gender parity (which was slow but at least moving) may be discouraging. But it’s important to know that there are plenty of things that can be done about it. And while everyone has a role to play in this, the onus must necessarily lie with leaders due to their outsized influence.

The first thing that organizational leaders who care about this issue need to do is implement behavior modeling. Unless employees see their leaders modeling the very change and behavior the leaders profess to want, they are unlikely to adopt those changes themselves. 

An example of a leader and organization doing this is Robbert Rietbroek of PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand. Rietbroek initiated a “Leaders Leaving Loudly” policy in which, whenever leaders need to go home early to fulfill family responsibilities, they announce to their teams that they are leaving early and why. For example, “I gotta go pick up the kids, see you all later!” 

The goal is to normalize and destigmatize the inevitable intersections of work and home life and to reduce presenteeism, or the act of staying at work just to keep up appearances. After-hours work is also discouraged for the same reason, unless it’s being done as part of a flexible work arrangement. 

“Leaders Leaving Loudly” is an example of modeling a family-friendly work culture. When leaders model behavior, employees are more likely to follow suit, and workplace culture begins to change. When workplace culture changes, workplace policies eventually catch up.             

Another action to take is to form and communicate clearly defined policies for potentially ambiguous topics such as “flexible work.” Dr. Brené Brown says that clarity is kind and lack of clarity is unkind. Therefore, be kind to your people. Recognize that having to individually hash out flexible work arrangements can adversely affect mothers. 

Instead, organizations should clearly communicate written policies with any exceptions for special circumstances also clearly spelled out. For example, defining core hours and meeting times is useful in helping women protect their work schedules and organize childcare. The less ambiguity there is, the more managers and employees can make better-informed decisions about flexibility.

Educating Leadership 

In addition to using behavior modeling and clear communication, companies need to train and educate leadership to be aware of, and take action to mitigate, the bias against mothers — just like you would want them to be aware of other forms of bias. 

Implicit bias training, if it’s inclusive of the motherhood penalty, can be one way to do this, though it shouldn’t be the only way. The most important thing is to get managers and HR thinking about and discussing the ways they may be unconsciously discriminating against mothers. Some helpful questions for starting discussions include:

  • In what ways might we be penalizing mothers?
  • Does our company culture make mothers feel welcome and valued?  
  • How might we be discriminating against mothers in our hiring practices?
  • Are mothers shunted into lower-paying jobs in our organization?
  • Are there differences in non-salary compensation such as bonuses, overtime opportunities, and stock options? 
  • Does it take longer for mothers to get promoted?

Organizational introspection is a great place to start, but it should go without saying that thinking and discussion alone are not enough. Employers should closely examine their hiring practices, performance evaluations, promotions, bonus structures, and leadership pipelines — not just by race and gender, which are obviously important, but also by parental status. 

A good place to start is with an equal-pay audit. Compare how parental status affects the wages or salaries of employees doing similar work. An audit can factor in anything important to the company in terms of how it sets pay rates (e.g., education, experience, performance), but all things being equal, if someone is getting paid less and the only difference is parental status, then clearly that needs to be changed. Additionally, the ramifications of the intersection of multiple identities that negatively affect pay (e.g., a person of color, a woman and a mother) need to especially be examined for prejudice and lack of equity, as pay and opportunities are often the most negatively affected. 

Finally, think about how to create an overall work environment that values and frames motherhood positively. If the recommendations in this article are followed sincerely, much of this will happen on its own. But there are always more things a proactive organization can do to create a workplace that’s not just welcoming of mothers but actively seeks to learn from them. 

Perhaps you can invite the mothers in your company to share what leadership lessons they’ve learned from motherhood. For example, Mother’s Day can be a natural opportunity to also cultivate company-wide appreciation and respect. You could have a mom-focused event or maybe allow mothers with a child under 18 an extra personal day. The idea is simply to find ways to make the mothers in your organization feel welcome, respected, paid equally, and valued — as you’d want for everyone in your company. 

You would not be here without your mother. If we don’t start valuing women, including mothers, we are going to lose money, talent, and expertise. We often say that we value our mothers. It is time for a cultural change that enacts this in practice.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.