Friday, November 24, 2017

The "Motherhood Penalty"

Because of the normative conceptions of what a “normal” family looks like and what a “normal” mother is (e.g. SNAF-encoded households), women are faced with a two-fold set of obstacles that inhibit them from reducing the wage disparity between men and women. The first obstacle is the unequal distribution of labor within the private sphere, which burdens mothers with a disproportionate amount of household chores (the “second shift”). The second obstacle is the culturally perceived tension between what it means to be an “ideal worker” and what it means to be an “ideal mother” (the “motherhood penalty”).

As stated by Dorothy Edith Smith in The Standard North American Family: SNAF as an Ideological Code, SNAF is a normative conception of the family as a legally married couple sharing a household. Within this household there are distinctive roles for both the adult male and adult female. The male participates in paid employment to fulfill his role as the primary breadwinner of the family, whereas the female may or may not participate in paid labor.

Under the ideological code of SNAF, it is not necessary for the female to make income, because her primary responsibility is to take care of the husband, child, and household. As such, her potential income is merely viewed as supplementary.

As a result, women who take work outside their household duties are not viewed as standard, and are considered to be deviating from the normal structure of the nuclear family. Because of the primary identification of women as mothers and being primarily concerned with the rearing of children, the burden of caring for the child is placed entirely upon the mother.

Additionally, a mothers formal identification with caretaker often times lead into their decision to not pursue professional careers, which directly contributes to the unequal pay between men and women. The most frustrating aspect of this dilemma is that women feel the need to choose between either marriage or work, whereas men operate under the assumption that they can have both. Namely, because they do not have to be burdened with the household affairs

Shelley J. Correll in Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty, argues that in addition to workplace discrimination based on sex, mothers face an additional penalty because of their status characteristic as mothers, called the “motherhood penalty”. This occurs because the salient feature of “motherhood” is a devalued status characteristic in the eyes of prospective employers, due to the perceived tension between the normative conceptions of “ideal mother” and “ideal worker”. What it means to be an “ideal worker” is the ability to devote endless amounts of hours to one's work, whereas what it means to be an “ideal mother” is to devote oneself entirely to her family and children.

Accordingly, in the eyes of employers, mothers are not ideal candidates for employment and are discriminated against for their status as a mother. When evaluating a candidate, Correll argues that employers judge “performance capacity” upon two criteria: competence (ability) and effort (commitment). Mothers are viewed as lacking in both criteria due to the aforementioned conceptions of mothers.

Structuring her experiment around these ideas, Correll’s lab experiment showed that when all other status characteristics were held constant, (e.g. race, class, gender) whereas “motherhood” was made salient, the results confirmed the hypothesis of the motherhood penalty. Mothers as opposed to non-mothers were hired at a lower rate, were offered lower starting salaries, and were also less likely to be considered for promotion. Also, in support of the SNAF-encoded nuclear family, fathers were offered a higher initial salary as opposed to non-fathers, probably because of the belief that fathers should be the primary bread winners and support the family financially.

Thus, we can see how the cultural beliefs of the normal family serves as an obstacle in the fight against unequal wage distribution between men and women. Primarily by i) restricting women from participating in the workplace because of being overburdened with work in the household and ii) facing real and material consequences for being labeled as mothers.


B. Williams said...


As a woman who is soon to enter the legal profession, and as a woman who wants to eventually have children, the motherhood penalty is something I think about often. Last year I had to opportunity to read an article on this topic that popped into my newsfeed: "The Gender Pay Gap is Largely the Result of Motherhood" (

One depressing point that stuck out to me was that the motherhood penalty is a self-perpetuating cycle... women are paid less because they have children (or are expected to have children) and as a result, women (since they make less than their husbands/have less earning potential) are expected to cut back their hours or quit their jobs to take on more housework and childcare responsibilities.

One potential helpful solution I've read about to tackle the motherhood penalty are voluntary gender neutral leave policies (like Ikea implemented: or, better yet, government-mandated paternal leave policies (common in Scandanavian countries: Studies have found that such policies, when actually used/enforced can play a significant role in reducing the motherhood penalty. First, they encourage new mothers to return to work because they have increased support from their partner at home. Second, both men and women are equally likely, in the eyes of employers, to reduce work hours/productivity after childbirth, and thus employers are less motivated to discriminate against women on the grounds that they are "less-than-ideal" workers.

While I feel mandatory paid parental/paternal leave would currently be a tough sell in Congress, I am more hopeful that progressive states (hey California!) might be willing to experiment and serve as a model for other states by implementing progressive work policies that promote healthy families and workplace gender-equality.

Aoife Mee said...


I too, share your disappointment that despite women today having greater employment opportunities than in the past, they are still hindered by their ability and choice to have children. Apparently, deciding to become a mother is one of the worst career moves a woman can make.

Interestingly though, a recent article by the New York Times(, indicated that, by contrast, parenthood has the opposite effect on the careers of men. Apparently, employers tend to perceive men who have children as more stable and committed to their work because they have a family to provide for. As a result, this can increase their chance of securing a job, promotion, or higher salary. By contrast, parenthood is interpreted as making female employees as more distractible and less committed and thereby reducing their employment and advancement opportunities, as well as earnings.

Indeed, there is clear evidence to suggesting such employer bias exists. Recent data produced by Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that, on average, men's earning increased more than 6% when they had children, while women's decreased 4% for each child they had. Clearly then, putting your membership of the parent-teachers' association on your resume and a family picture on your desk is a good idea if you are male, but not if you are female.

Like Becca, I agree that the only way to challenge these double standards is through pushing for publicly funded, high-quality child care for babies and toddlers, and moderate-length paid parental leave for both parents.

Omar de la Cruz said...


Your post touched on an issue that really troubled me during this course. Many of the topics we talked about in class were disturbing but the one about the motherhood penalty was particularly worrisome. Perhaps it's because it hits particularly close to home since my girlfriend is also a law student and hearing about the hellish path women face when entering the legal profession was frightening. At the same time I wonder what it is I could do to help combat this problem. The good thing about my situation is that the nature of the legal work I do would make it far easier to take time away if I ever had kids than my girlfriend, who would like to work at a firm. Perhaps that means that my role in this could be volunteering to take time off from my career in order to raise a family. Personally I wouldn't mind that in the slightest. In the end though that's merely a solution for our individual situation and not really doing anything to fight the more macro sized problem of the motherhood penalty.