What is the Motherhood Penalty and Why is it Still Affecting Women in the Workplace?

What is the Motherhood Penalty and Why is it Still Affecting Women in the Workplace?

Aug 11 , 2021

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Megan McDonough

Whether returning to the office full time or remaining work-from-home, balancing career and a baby is tough stuff. 

Covid-19 made things even more difficult, with moms of school-aged children adding ‘teacher’ to their list of roles. In fact, Fast Company reported that at the start of the school year in 2020, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force— 4x the rate of men. 

No matter how you look at it, moms deserve better. 

What is the motherhood penalty?

The ‘motherhood penalty’ is a complex issue with some very simple truths. It speaks to the systemic disadvantages many women face in their careers after becoming mothers: earning less than men, being overlooked for promotions and exclusions from job advancement opportunities. For women in the workforce (that’s most of us), it’s a real setback. 

On top of motherhood penalties and gender discrimination, BIPOC moms have a unique set of challenges. Women make 79 cents for every dollar men earn. However, Black women earn 64 cents on the dollar, while Latina women earn an even lower 54 cents. 

The numbers don’t lie

As reported by Forbes, the latest Bright Horizons’ annual Modern Family Index found three startling statistics: 

  • 69% of working Americans say working moms are more likely to be passed up for a new job than other employees
  • 60% say career opportunities are given to less qualified employees instead of working moms who may be more skilled
  • 72% of both working moms and dads agree that women are penalized in their careers for starting families, while men are not

Despite women continuing to attain higher levels of education, the motherhood penalty persists. The New York Times reported that women get a 4% pay cut for every child they have; as opposed to men, who receive a 6% pay increase. It’s also worth noting that around 40% of women are the primary breadwinners, so any pay cut will be felt within the entire family unit. 

This disadvantage also affects women who don't have or do not want children. According to the same Forbes article, nearly twice as many American women are nervous to tell their boss they are pregnant compared to five years ago. A reported 65% of women who do not have children have reservations about becoming mothers due to this bias. Almost half (42%) of women fear it will hurt their career trajectory. 

Women make up half of entry-level positions across the country. However, there is a big drop off in middle management. It’s a situation where everyone loses: women lose out on job opportunities that would increase their income and career trajectory, men lose out on being socially accepted as good caregivers and companies lose out on great talent. This translates to $28 trillion that could be added to the global GDP. 

Maternity leave (or lack thereof)

In accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act, men and women are eligible (as in, it doesn’t apply to everyone) for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Currently in the United States, there is not a law that outright covers parental leave. As a result, parental leave is largely left in the hands of individual employers and many companies offer no leave package. For freelancers and the self-employed, there is a whole other set of guidelines you must meet in order to receive support. 

When you look at how other countries handle maternity leave, it becomes clear that the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do: 

  • In Norway, moms receive 100% paid leave for 40 weeks. From 41-52 weeks, they receive 80% of their normal salaries. Dads are also given 12 weeks of paternity leave and for single moms, there are dedicated special facilities.
  • In France, women can take up to 4 months of paid maternity leave. More time off is possible, with the potential of a pay cut. 
  • In the U.K., women can take 52 weeks of maternity leave. Expecting mothers can begin their leave 11 weeks before their estimated due date. 

Choosing whether or not to breastfeed becomes complicated for American mothers, who must choose between exclusive breastfeeding and returning to work. Limited maternity leave makes a breastfeeding goal difficult for moms to achieve unless they rely on the antiquated technology of breast pumps. Breast pumping is exhausting, time-consuming, and stressful. Many offices are also not equipped to cater to breastfeeding moms

How companies can better support moms

Creating a safe and supportive environment for moms is essential for empowering them to do their best work. Awarding moms the equal pay they deserve and providing paid maternity leave during the pivotal weeks postpartum is a great start. 

Additionally, companies can become better educated on the needs of breastfeeding moms. For example, many offices lack Mother’s Rooms where mothers can comfortably breastfeed or pump. Mamava is a smart solution for this. They design lactation suites for breastfeeding moms, making the world a friendlier place for women to breast pump or breastfeed. Pods can be installed in under four hours and are best-suited for workplaces and small venues. Each pod comes complete with two spacious benches, a fold-down table, and power outlets. 

Allowing for a hybrid work model—a work style in which employees can work from home, the office or a shared coworking space of their choice—adds much needed flexibility to a mom’s schedule. Networks like Deskpass specifically cater to remote distributed teams looking for on-demand desks, meeting rooms and private offices. Their ‘Mother’s Room’ filter allows moms to reserve workspaces that comfortably accommodate their breastfeeding needs. 

Change ahead

Earlier this year, we wrote about how the new U.S. administration would affect women’s health. Within Biden’s first few days in office, the president signed off on 30 executive orders, two of which center around women’s reproductive rights both at home and abroad. 

As part of Biden’s commitment to restore the economic crisis across the country, he has also promised to push for better equality for women—particularly women of color. These include providing equal pay, investing in women-owned businesses and expanding access to education and job training.  

Change may be slow but every step is a step in the right direction. At Lilu, our goal is to empower moms on their breastfeeding journeys. The Lilu Massage Bra is the first ever bra that does the massage for you, allowing you to pump more milk in less time. It’s hands-free, and you can take it with you wherever you go. 

Lilu is a Women’s Health company building tech-enabled devices to empower new moms. Our first product, the Lilu Massage Bra, mimics compression massage, so you can empty your breasts fully to establish, increase and maintain your milk supply. Pump up to 50% more milk each session, all while going hands-free.

Lilu Massage Bra with flanges

Lilu Massage Bra


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