Skip to content

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

December 8, 2011

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

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Francesca permalink
    December 9, 2011 13:35

    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!

    • December 9, 2011 13:51

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

  2. Eva permalink
    December 9, 2011 20:26

    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.

  3. December 9, 2011 21:49

    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

    • December 9, 2011 23:32

      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!

  4. Lena permalink
    December 10, 2011 11:10

    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.

    • December 10, 2011 11:25

      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. December 10, 2011 16:37

    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.

    • December 10, 2011 16:57

      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. Dominique Millette permalink
    December 12, 2011 02:13

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

  7. December 14, 2011 14:57

    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.


    • December 16, 2011 07:52

      I’m going to look around for other studies of this phenomenon. It would be very interesting if it could be replicated. Thank you!

  8. Adriana Blanco permalink
    December 14, 2011 22:15

    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 permalink
    December 15, 2011 12:35

    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.

    • December 16, 2011 07:56

      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.

  10. December 16, 2011 09:33

    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.


  1. There are only 3 reasons women don’t make it to the top « curt rice
  2. The fatherhood bonus: Have a child and advance your career « curt rice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s