What is the motherhood penalty?
The motherhood penalty is a term that refers to discrimination faced by mothers in the workplace. This issue isn’t unique to the UK – women around the world face it in many forms.
This can involve unfair treatment, such as having doubt cast around their commitment to work and being perceived as less efficient, alongside significant impacts on the salaries of working mums.
Forms of maternity discrimination
- A decrease in income immediately after the arrival of a child.
In 2021, research by the University College of London found an average reduction of 28%, with first-time mothers being paid around £306 less for each month during their first year of parenthood. This deduction further increased for every additional child.
The same study reflected that this impact lasts for up to 6 years, with working mums earning “45% of what their salary would have been” if they did not become mothers.
- Being passed over for a job offer or promotion despite knowledge and ability, due to being pregnant or having a young child.
Revealed by the UK ONS, 26% of fathers are promoted (or move to a more senior role) within the first 5 years after childbirth, whereas only 13% of mothers achieve the same. The ONS stated; “Over time it is not occupational downgrading but rather a lower chance of getting a promotion that slows down mothers’ progression.”
- Being pressured to accept a role at a lower seniority or with less favourable terms than before maternity leave.
- Receiving fewer benefits or being paid less in comparison to women in similar roles who do not have dependent children.
Motherhood and the gender pay gap
Up to 80% of the gender pay gap is a direct result of the motherhood penalty.
As of 2023, UK pay inequality for women in comparison to their male coworkers jumped from 3.9% at the age of 29, to an average of 11.7% at 30 (three times as high).
This means that women in the UK are having their earning potential drastically impacted, purely because they have aged by one year – and because this is around the time that many women have children.
Find out the current figures of the UK gender pay gap in 2023.
Mum or not: “Potential fertility” and your pay
In February, researchers for the European Sociological Review approached whether a ‘potential motherhood’ penalty may also be a factor in the UK pay gap.
“We posed the question of whether potential fertility – (…) the likelihood that a childless woman will transition to motherhood (…) is associated with a wage penalty.” – Zamberlan and Barbieri, 2023
Collating data from SOEP, BHPS, and UKHLS, they measured a hypothetical timeline of ‘potential fertility,’ factoring in cultural and socio-economic impacts. Overall, they found a link wherein there was “a wage gap to the disadvantage of potential mothers.”
This means that even if women do not have children by the age of 30 (the time pay inequality leaps to 11.7%), their wages may still reflect that they are paid less in comparison to their male coworkers, influenced by the perceived potential for them to still have children in the future.
Fertility treatment and workplace discrimination
Last month, Pregnant Then Screwed released a report in partnership with Women In Data.
The report revealed that only 42% of respondents who were going through fertility treatment made the decision to inform their boss. Of those respondents, one in four (24%) didn’t receive any support from their employer, while another 24% said they experienced unfair treatment as a result.
How the motherhood penalty affects same-sex couples.
In 2019, Norwegian researchers Martin Eckhoff Andresen and Emily Nix released a report which studied the penalty’s impact on women in same-sex and bisexual relationships.
[Translated] “The results show that heterosexual couples in Norway respond to children in the same way as other Western countries: mothers experience a reduced income of approximately 22% immediately after birth, a [connection] that persists for five years.”
Andresen and Nix’s data revealed that working mums in same-sex couples were less impacted by the motherhood penalty, but at an unequal rate;
“The partner who gave birth had a 13% income drop, while her partner saw a 5% drop (…) For male same-sex couples, the study saw no impact on income.” – N26, 2022
One potential reason for this 13% figure being noticeably lower than for women in heterosexual relationships is that for many same-sex relationships, traditional (heteronormative) gender roles often have a limited presence. This could mean the expectations which are typically placed on a mother figure may be shared more evenly, with partners taking on the other 5% of the income drop and helping to soften the overall impact.
Paternity and the motherhood penalty
Further research supports the theory that sharing the duties of childcare can minimise the motherhood penalty.
As stated by the World Economic Forum in 2022; “research shows 80% of dads said they’d do anything to spend more time with their children,” however, fathers and partners are limited by the obstacles of unpaid paternity leave and societal expectations to remain in work.
The WEF also discusses figures from Sweden which showed “for every month of paternity leave taken by dads and mothers, wages rose by 7%.” They continued to observe that it had “an enormous impact on the motherhood penalty.”
Here in the UK, the TUC’s General Secretary, Paul Nowak also weighed in on the topic of paternity leave;
“It’s clear that the gender pay gap widens dramatically once women become mums. (…) Partners need better rights to well-paid leave that they can take in their own right. Otherwise, mums will continue to take on the bulk of caring responsibilities – and to take the financial hit.”
Resources for women affected by maternity or pregnancy discrimination
Pregnant Then Screwed began in 2015 after CEO and founder, Joeli Brearley was fired by her employer two days after telling them that she was pregnant.
Since then, the charity has become a vehicle for change; in 2021 alone, they helped women to secure “at least £628,000 through legal action against an employer following an experience of pregnancy or maternity discrimination.”
Pregnant Then Screwed provides a platform for visitors to read the stories of women with similar experiences and access tailored advice lines to know their rights and seek mental health support.
For employers, they offer bespoke training to raise awareness around discrimination and to ensure the right support is in place for the well-being of pregnant women and parents.
Work with Distinct Recruitment
At Distinct Recruitment, we strive to educate ourselves on current events and equality issues faced by those within protected demographics. Whether you work with us as a client or candidate, we’d be happy to discuss equality and diversity in the workplace with you.
As leaders in the field, we take the time to understand organisations and candidates alike to ensure the right fit for all. Contact us today.