What Is the ‘Motherhood Penalty’ and How Can Women Avoid It?

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Studies have shown that being a mother can often be a disadvantage in the workplace when it comes to getting hired, getting promoted and getting raises. This results in the “motherhood penalty” — the fact that women’s pay decreases once they become mothers. According to the American Association of University Women, mothers make 70 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. In today’s “Financially Savvy Female” column, we’re chatting with Kimberlee Davis, host of “The Fiscal Feminist” and managing director and partner at The Bahnsen Group, about why the motherhood penalty exists and what women can do about it.

What’s causing the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’?

Essentially, I think it’s based on lingering anachronistic ideas and beliefs that we still have in our society. There’s an ongoing stigma and belief that mothers aren’t able to maintain their professional footing as well as their male colleagues and women who don’t have kids. Women are expected to work like they don’t have children, and they are expected to be mothers like they don’t work, which is an equation that is impossible.

Women see their earnings drop by 4% for each child they have, whereas men see their income increase by 6% per child that they have. It’s definitely a real thing, and it definitely affects women’s financial security throughout the course of their lives.

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Deep down in our psyche, employers are clinging to traditional notions that men are the breadwinners and women are the caregivers. That’s really categorically not true anymore. In about 30% of households with heterosexual partners, women are the primary breadwinners. This notion that we are all staying at home and as soon as we have a kid, we can’t go to work and perform is incorrect, but it’s very very deeply ingrained in how we think, even today. It’s this ongoing stigma.

Have you experienced the motherhood penalty firsthand?

I am a mother of three children, and I was a practicing attorney for a long time back in the ’80s and ’90s in New York City. I definitely felt the effects of the motherhood penalty, and I was hoping that by now we would have evolved to be a lot further along than we are.

When I worked back at the big law firm, they said straight up, if you have a child, you will not be on the partnership track. They actually said those words. My daughter who is 31 is a lawyer in New York City, and I don’t think it’s that much easier now. There aren’t so many women partners with children. The work hours are demanding and there’s a lack of flexibility. It’s just so ingrained in our macho system. I think there is a long road to haul on this. Some progress has been made, but I think those numbers don’t lie, and the fact that women see their numbers drop every time they have a kid is something that is outrageous.

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What can women do to avoid being penalized for being mothers?

We all have to take responsibility for ourselves. People need to start having a voice about this and be willing to talk about it. We need to let our voices be heard.

On the personal responsibility side, you need to be intentional when you are looking for a place to work. Try to choose a place that has company leaders who model flexibility in how they work. Research your company.

I would also recommend that when you’re doing that research, look into company performance review metrics. Is this the kind of place that’s going to be reviewing you strictly based on the hours that you work or on your actual performance? I think for mothers especially, working remotely is a benefit, but they shouldn’t be penalized for that. As long as their performance is up to par, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re working in an office. We have to be proactive, do our research, ask questions and go to HR and find out what’s going on in a company.

We have to advocate for ourselves. Women are really reluctant to do that, they’re reluctant to negotiate. They’re worried about looking too forceful or looking too aggressive. But it will have a very long-reaching effect on their professional lives if they don’t negotiate. They need to stop apologizing and they need to practice being assertive with the people in their companies, that they are mothers but they’re still working. Constantly be quantifying your accomplishments so you can reel them off when people are giving you a hard time because you have to go pick your child up.

Finally, women need to look into the issues and vote for the representatives that [support] family issues for women, whether it’s the child care tax credit or parental leave or flexible work.

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What legal recourse do women have if they feel they are being discriminated against because they are mothers?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the organization that is in charge of trying to make sure that this doesn’t happen. Parenthood in itself isn’t a protected characteristic under the law, so when you go against a company, it’s usually going to be classified as gender discrimination.

If you have quantified what your accomplishments are and you have a written record of that, and you can show that whatever is going on isn’t based on your performance, it’s based on stereotypical assumptions that this woman is not going to be able to perform her work that way she would without a baby, that’s unlawful discrimination. At that point, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will engage in a lawsuit based on gender discrimination. There’s no law on the books right that says if you are discriminated against as for being a mother, that’s against the law, so you have to get to it through gender discrimination.

GOBankingRates wants to empower women to take control of their finances. According to the latest stats, women hold $72 billion in private wealth — but fewer women than men consider themselves to be in “good” or “excellent” financial shape. Women are less likely to be investing and are more likely to have debt, and women are still being paid less than men overall. Our “Financially Savvy Female” column will explore the reasons behind these inequities and provide solutions to change them. We believe financial equality begins with financial literacy, so we’re providing tools and tips for women, by women to take control of their money and help them live a richer life.

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