The motherhood penalty: Mothers earn less than working women, but there is a solution!

Mothers of young children believe that they have a lower salary than other women, and this perception of the gap increases with the number of children.

The motherhood penalty is a term that designates the wage gap between mothers and women who are not mothers, as well as between mothers and fathers. According to global indicators, the gap increases with the number of children, so in a large number of European countries mothers with one child feel a slight negative effect of motherhood on their income, while mothers with two, three or more children feel a significant negative impact. The impact is greater the longer they spend on parental leave.

According to research we conducted in 2015, mothers of young children believe that they have a lower salary than other women, and this perception of the gap increases with the number of children. Also, available statistics show that women with small children have lower wages than their peers, especially women in  higher income brackets. If you add education and years of experience to that equation, we can say that mothers earn less than other working women.

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Reasons for motherhood penalty 


  • Mothers are less present in business activities due to childcare, including maternity and parental leave.
  • They tend to refuse better-paying jobs with more responsibility in preparation for motherhood, and tend to select jobs that enable smooth reconciliation of private and business life.
  • Employers’ stereotypical expectations that mothers will be  less engaged and productive  at work due to dedication to children and family.
  • Lack of kindergartens and childcare services, as well as flexible forms of work.
  • Jobs pay less in the so-called feminine professions

I would add to the list the notion that mother is the one responsible for the care of children, which is passed down from generation to generation. For this reason, even young girls choose professions that will enable them to have a family life in accordance with the perception of what family life is. This year I talked with some excellent students about their university choices. These 18-year-old girls made decisions on their future professions guided by such precepts.

I tried to make them aware of the long-term consequences of such decisions, but I wasn’t very successful. Instead of medicine, which they had dreamed about for years, they chose psychology and dentistry because of the convenience of the profession and the working hours, which are seen as more suitable for women. I cannot express enough how sad I am when I meet with such reasoning, because we need these young, smart girls to heal us in the near future. We need female specialists in various branches of medicine that are still dominated by men.

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In the work environment, I have also witnessed countless times young women deciding that it is not yet time for their promotion, because they will become mothers, and so on. And also the management’s decisions not to promote a colleague because she will give birth and then take maternity or parental leave. In both situations, it is a hypothetical event that does not have to happen at all, or can happen in the distant future, while this smart, hardworking young woman can significantly contribute to the business with her knowledge, experience, and dedication.

A big problem for women, which contributes directly to the motherhood penalty, is that key years for professional development and thus career development run in parallel with motherhood. A career is a marathon, and this relatively short period of the initial years of starting a family when women are not actively present at work due to maternity and parental leave should not have such a negative impact. However, this is exactly what is happening, with a multiplying negative effect on the incomes of a large number of mothers.

I have myself been a victim of this effect after every pregnancy. After the birth of my first child, I had negative consequences for my business because, as a young entrepreneur, I was left without a significant client after giving birth. Just before the birth of my second child, I lost an important and large client, precisely because of the stereotypical expectation that the company of a woman with a small child cannot provide good enough support to the client, even though that support at that stage did not depend on me at all, but on the team that did its job brilliantly. This had a significant impact on our income at the time, and certainly increased the statistics on the motherhood penalty.

I also heard from numerous other women who had promising careers before motherhood, earned enough and were satisfied with life. And then the pregnancy happened, because of which they missed opportunities, experienced negative expectations about the working capacity of a mother and, at least to some extent, earned less. Female entrepreneurs are a particularly vulnerable group of mothers, but women in corporations also often lose opportunities and thus income.

So, what is to be done? How can we fight against the culture and outside expectations, but also our own? We need to start with ourselves!


What can we do within the family?


1. Share all responsibilities with the partner/father of the child even if you are separated

Make a to-do list with a corresponding schedule so that the responsibilities are distributed equally. We tend to forget and tacitly agree on the division of work in the family. But have you ever calculated how much of whose time is spent on which tasks?

For example, making appointments with doctors and taking children to check-ups also takes time, as does cooking and ironing, which usually stand out. Going to parent meetings, studying with children. Do you share these tasks with your partner or is it all up to you?

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2. Share parental leave with the child’s father

It is those 8 months after the 6th month of the child’s life. Do you know that half of that period is intended for fathers and that they must transfer it to the mother if they do not use it? Also, do you know that two months will remain unused if dad doesn’t use them?

So it is not the mother’s right, but the father’s right to parental leave with his child. For mothers, this also means 4 possible months more they can dedicate to their first passion – a job they love, and to career development, which has in turn many benefits for them personally and for the family as a whole.

3. Don’t regret the money spent on childcare, but still be actively present in your children’s lives

In practice, this means that you organise your business activities during the period when care is provided for the children, but that you also share with your partner the obligation to pick up the children and deal with the children outside of that period, so that you can also go to important meetings and events outside of working hours, participate in professional associations and in everything else that is important for achieving your professional goals.

I often hear how women have to leave work at the same time every day because they have to pick up their child from kindergarten. And where are the dads? It’s okay to share that part of the responsibilities with dad, so that they can have their time with the child, and at the same time free up the important time for mom.

4. Don’t regret the money for a housekeeping service

Do you know that most of the unpaid work women do is housework, i.e. they spend at least two hours a day doing it? Can you imagine what else you could achieve in those two hours a day? I’m sure that your hourly wages amount to more than you would pay someone to do that work, and it would free your precious time for work, family, friends.

At the same time, you help another family to make ends meet, and usually another woman to contribute to the wellbeing of her children by working and earning.


What can we do in the workplace?


1. Talk openly about your business and career plans, during the pregnancy, before and after

Make your ambitions clear to prevent assumptions that you will not be available, that you will work less, or that you will no longer be devoted to work over family. Broach the subject yourself with your important business partners or superiors, as others are probably uncomfortable broaching the subject with you due to our culture which dictates that pregnancy and then paternity leave is sacrosanct and untouchable.

In the organisations we work with through MAMFORCE certification, we always draw attention to the fact that it is necessary to actively include colleagues who are on maternity/parental leave, share information with them, include them in the education they would attend if they were not on leave, or offer them a promotion if the opportunity arises.

What we hear from management is that they are not allowed to touch them because it is their right to be absent. I believe that this is wrong, and it is a consequence of the culture that dictates it. Maybe a lot of women share these views, but don’t let yourself be put in the expected mold if that’s not your story. Show that you are interested, that you want to be involved and that, regardless of motherhood, you are still ambitious and dedicated to work.

2. Readily accept every new business opportunity that opens up to you and ask for the support of your partner, family, and friends

Women can often assume that they will not get support before they even check with people close to them. It is important to clearly state what we want and what kind of support we need.

3. Negotiate your salary or the price of your services based on the value you bring, not the life circumstances in which you work

Women often subconsciously think that they are worth less and contribute less because they devote part of their time to children and family. Your contribution is the same, often even better, because you have become more focused and organised thanks to parenthood.

4. Be willing to accept jobs that are not in the category of typical female occupations

You may end up being one of only a handful of women in the workplace, but this is at the same time an advantage that also applies to men who work in predominantly female professions. Use that advantage and value your work according to the knowledge and skills you bring, and not a feeling of greater or lesser value based on gender.

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5. Actively engage in business discussions

Don’t stand aside and express no opinion. Your opinion is important! And include other women in the discussion, because women often do not want the spotlight on themselves, they are resistant to public attention.

6. When in Rome, do as the Romans do: The same applies to the business environment

When you are at a business event, talk about business. Not about children, diapers, school problems. It’s okay to have small talk about common topics, but don’t let the topic of children and family dominate you. You probably have other interests in life that you can share in an informal part of the conversation, such as currently popular books, movies, trips you’ve taken or are planning, sports results or current events.

Women tend to delve into topics related to children and stay on these topics throughout the meeting. In the long term, this puts you in the category of a caregiver, not a successful woman in business, which entails expectations and related stereotypes that I spoke about at the beginning of this assessment that as a woman, mother, you are less dedicated to work and more to family.

As you can see, my list of tips for what you can do yourself is a bit longer on the business side, which does not diminish the importance of the private one. At home, it’s important to talk openly about everything and be very clear about expectations. This is especially important for young couples who are just at the beginning of their journey together. Don’t give up on yourself to please others. That never ends well, for either party involved.

And finally, do not fail to support other women, in every possible way, emotionally, temporally, financially, with advice, by opening up opportunities. Take responsibility for yourself in the full sense of the word, and influence actively everything that is in your domain of possible influence.

In the organisations where you work, warn about the systemic gaps and failings you observe, and if you think we can help, refer the management to MAMFORCE, which has been helping organisations change the system, raise awareness, remove bias, and provide fair conditions for everyone, for more than ten years.

Author: mr. sc. Dianna K. Descovich

The original text was written for Women and Money.


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