The Motherhood Penalty

We know that the Gender Pay Gap is a prevalent roadblock blocking women in Aotearoa and the world from obtaining the financial and career recognition they deserve. Lesser known and discussed, however, is the Motherhood Penalty and it’s very real impact on working mothers.

Global Women’s celebration of International Women’s Day 2021: Choose to Challenge is the #DroptheMotherhoodPenalty campaign, which demystifies the Motherhood Penalty, spotlighting it’s impacts on working women and holding space for conversations about this multifaceted issue.

So what exactly is this penalty that affects so many of our working population — and more importantly, what steps can we take to steer us in a direction where it’ll be stamped out from working life?

We draw on findings from the Ministry of Women’s Parenthood and Labour Outcomes by Dr Isabelle Sin, Dr Kabir Dasgupta and Prof Gail Pacheco to explore what the Motherhood Penalty means and offer insights on how we can actively stamp it out.

Choosing to Challenge means consciously taking action — no matter how big or small it may be — to unravel the unconscious biases and roadblocks that remain around women with children, and weave a solid foundation that supports working women are equal and prosperous, no matter their family situation.

What is the motherhood penalty?

The Motherhood Penalty can be described as the systematic disadvantages that women encounter in their careers once becoming a mother. It encompasses everything from earning an average of 12.5% less across a working lifetime despite working comparable hours to male and non-parent counterparts in their working lifetimes, through to being passed up for promotions and opportunities for advancement simply for being a mother as found by Motu Economic and Public Policy Research fellow and co-author, Dr Isabelle Sin.

It presents a very real setback for women in the workforce. Overall, Ministry for Women NZ finds that women across all income groups are less likely to be employed after becoming a parent. They also find that the average monthly earnings will fall dramatically for employed women, thanks mostly to a mix of lower hourly wages and fewer hours. Those that do become re-employed will see an average 4.4% drop in their hourly pay — which is likely to steepen for every subsequent child she has (Ministry for Women NZ). Additionally, global intel shows the pay difference can steepen as the child(ren) ages (American Journal of Psychology).

Not only that, becoming a mother can lead to a raft of less-tangible career setbacks for a mother: being overlooked for promotions, left out of training and education opportunities, and sidestepped from specific high-value projects that would otherwise be a catalyst for their advancement.

  • Lower income and qualifications = higher stakes

Women with higher educational qualifications are more likely to return to work. Ministry for Women’s return-to-work-findings shows a damaging trend where less than half of qualification-free mothers (45%) actually return to work a decade after their first baby. This is sharply compared to over 60% of those with a school or post-school qualification, and nearly 70% percent with a tertiary degree, returning to work in the same timeframe.

Parenthood penalties hit low-income mothers the most: with approximately half of low-income mothers are unemployed a decade on from the first child. Interestingly, this is contrasted by men who show no tendency to decrease their employment post-parenthood, no matter their income (Ministry for Women).

  • An intersectional lense

Also important to consider is the intersectionality of ethnicity in the Motherhood Gap findings from Ministry for Women: which shows a higher impact on Pacific and Maori mothers who have re-employment rates of 41% and 45% respectively after 10 years. Pakeha mothers, who have been found to delay childbearing the longest, have a contrasting 59% re-employment rate after a decade.

  • Earning potential & time off

The faster she returns to work, the less impact it’ll have on a mothers hours and earnings. Ministry for Women findings show that returning between 1-6 months of birth will land a woman the highest median hours of work (30) while those returning in the 7th-12th month and 13th month or later on have a median of 27 and 22 hours respectively. It’s interesting to note there that women with higher earnings before becoming parents are the ones more likely to bounce back more quickly to employment post-child-rearing (Dr Sin, et. Al. for Ministry for Women).

  • The effects extend beyond mothers

Highly skilled and highly remunerated mothers aren’t exempt from this damaging trend: women at higher pay scales and senior positions are likely to be hit harder by the penalty – as they see the slowest growth in monthly earnings (Ministry of Women). This is in stark contrast to the fatherhood bonus: where the higher a male worker is on the pay scale when his children are born, the more he is poised to benefit from becoming a father in his career (American Journal of Psychology).

The long tail of the motherhood penalty doesn’t simply stay within the confines of parenthood: women who do not — and may never — have children don’t escape the sting. Being perceived to want to be a parent or the ability to bear a child subject them to the same kind of bias and effects of working mothers.

  • Unconscious bias is at the heart of the Motherhood Penalty

There’s a misconception that it simply stems from choices: to have a child, to take time off to raise it. However it’s just as layered and multi-dimensional as it is difficult to find one single pulse point for.

The powerhouse of the motherhood penalty is unconscious bias. It clouds perceptions of working mothers, and ringfences their actions and achievements in a way that undermines them and their capabilities when compared with their male and child-free counterparts.

A key effect is that working mother’s actions are often unconsciously held to higher scrutiny (for example leaving the office early is more negatively viewed), and she’s also more likely to have work devalued. This is apparent in research from other western nations, which shows that working mothers were perceived as 10% less competent and 12.1% less committed to jobs than non-mothers among equal colleagues performing the same task. On the flipside, fathers were praised to be 5% more committed for these same jobs (American Journal of Sociology).

There’s also the finding that when women talk about their children in the workplace, they’re often seen as distracted. As opposed to when men talk about their children and are viewed as caring dads instead, according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family and former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. She adds, “pregnant women and mothers are assumed to be less committed to their careers, and every time they leave the office or ask for any flexibility, that commitment is further called into question.”

All these examples show that there’s a rich tapestry of issues at hand.

Actions organisations can take to stamp it out:

Just as the causes of the penalty manifest through many actions — there are a multitude of steps that can be taken to reduce, mitigate and ultimately stamp out the effect in individual organisations. We explore these below:

  • Flexible working for everyone

With flexible working as a default, everyone is on an even, playing field. It creates a culture where this is a norm and not a novelty, removing the burden from employees to justify why the role should be flexible. Companies should consider providing the right technology and tools for remote working, or perhaps an allowance to cover the costs of setting up a remote workspace. Additionally, training for managers on how to manage flexible teams can be an excellent way to seamlessly make the transition and keep it afloat.

  • Nurturing inclusive cultures

Anecdotal insights from staff are key to making pointed, positive changes in the workplace that some data and audits may not pick up. Employee working groups do just that — bringing together staff across all levels to not both identify areas for improvement and also be empowered to create solutions. Equipping them with a budget, resources, and executive sponsors that feeds back to management, this is a valuable way to build and nurture an inclusive culture in the long run.

  • Minimising bias in all stages of the recruiting process

Recruiting is a pivotal place that can either perpetuate or positively pivot away from the Motherhood Penalty. Fortunately, there are plenty of steps that can be taken here to mitigate any bias. This starts with gender using neutral language in job ads — gender decoder programmes are excellent tools that can assist in identifying gendered, biased words. From then on, reviewing blind resumes (i.e. with no names to give away gender) and a requirement for a gender diverse quote of shortlisted can help eliminate the pitfalls that working mothers may otherwise fall into. Of course, having a gender-diverse interview panel is also a crucial consideration when it comes to mitigating any bias in the human interaction element.

  • An equal parental leave for all

Much like where flexible working should be part of your company culture, it’s important for equity in parental leave for both men and women to be the norm too. It’s also important to have robust measures in place to ensure working parents are kept in the pipeline, through easy back-to-work policies. A strong starting point for this is inviting returning parents to work reduced hours/part time while on full pay as they make the transition. Our handy Parental Leave Experience checklist and factsheet are great starting points to build a bountiful parental leave and back-to-work programme.

  • Mitigating Pay Gaps

Individual employers have the power to flatten the percentage of less pay a working mother could have over her life. There are many ways to do this: like continuing promotions and pay reviews during the parental leave period to avoid exacerbating the pay gap they may return back to and also look at performance/outputs over tenure when doing these reviews. When laterally hiring, not asking for the candidate’s current salary will also help inheriting an existing pay gap.

  • Leadership Development to create strong pipelines

Mentoring programmes are a great way to keep mothers in the pipeline. Knowing who they are across the organisation and investing in them through leadership development like an in-house initiative, or our Activate Leaders and Breakthrough Leaders programmes. We explore this more in our Keeping Women in Leadership Pipeline guide.

Where to next?

“It is important for managers and colleagues of working mothers to make a concerted effort to not view having children as a roadblock for career progression. Instead, they need to be embraced.” Maribeth Bearfield, Chief Human Resources Officer of Bright Horizons.

Trust, transparency and togetherness are going to be the binding elements of stamping out the motherhood penalty in your organisation. It’s important to remember that mitigating the penalty in your organisation, industry, and eventually the overall business landscape, is a marathon and not a sprint.


About Ava Wardecki – Ava channels her love of storytelling into writing and as a director of her company, Sneaky Social Media. With a background in corporate branding, consumer behaviour, communications and a conjoint Marketing and Public Relations degree from AUT and HEC Paris, she’s worked across corporate, fashion, lifestyle and hospitality industries. Paris born, Auckland raised and a keen traveller, she’s passionate about how understanding and creating cultures can inspire and evoke change.



Isabelle Sin, Kabir Dasgupta, Gail Pacheco: Parenthood and labour market outcomes research May 2018, Ministry of Women.
Ministry of Women: Summary of Parenthood and labour market outcomes research May 2018
Ministry of Women: Parenthood and the Labour Market Forum Slides May 2018
American Journal of Sociology: Getting a Job: is there a motherhood penalty?
Motu: Parenthood and labour market outcomes

Global Women: Parental Leave Experience checklist
Global Women: The Parental Leave Factsheet
Global Women: Keeping Women in Leadership Pipeline guide