Let’s Talk Parenthood & Career: The Mom Penalty and the Dad Bonus

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Prepared by: Karina Pogosyan

March is Women’s History Month, with March 8th being recognized as International Women’s Day. To celebrate, SWL is highlighting a series of topics that look at gender equality and explore ways that employers can help bridge the equality gap in their workplaces. 

It has long been known that women’s careers often take a hit when they become parents. It is one of the worst career moves a woman can make. It is generally the opposite for men – having a child is good for a man’s career. 

Whereas mothers are less likely to be hired for jobs, to be perceived as competent or to be paid as much as their male colleagues with the same qualifications, fathers are more likely to be hired than childless men and tend to be paid more after having children.

Hence, the often used “mom penalty” and “dad bonus” descriptions. Here we highlight some of the key aspects of this phenomenon and suggest what employers can do about it.

Research Reveals Wage Gaps and Dads as the Most Desirable Employees

In 2014, a sociology study conducted by Professor Michelle Budig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that on average, men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children (if they lived with them), while women’s earnings decreased 4 percent for each child they had. 

This study was based on data from the American National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1979 to 2006, which tracked people’s labour market activities over time. Professor Budig found that childless, unmarried women earned 96 cents for every dollar a man earns, while married mothers earned 76 cents, which contributed to a greater wage gap. 

Importantly, these differences persist even after controlling for factors like experience, education, hours worked, the types of jobs, and spousal incomes. 

While it is true that men sometimes work more after becoming fathers, Professor Budig’s study found that this explained at most 16 percent of their bonus. Likewise, although some mothers cut back on hours or accept lower-paying jobs that are more flexible and family-friendly, that explains only a quarter to a third of the reduction to their wages overall.

This suggests that the different effect parenthood has on one’s career is not down to the fact that mothers overall suddenly became less productive employees and fathers automatically started working harder when they became parents. Rather, it is because employers expect them to and, perhaps unconsciously, make decisions reinforcing that biased gender view. 

Thus, employers tend to treat fathers as more stable and committed employees after having kids, as they have a family to provide for, whereas the opposite holds true for how women are perceived in the workplace after having children. In other words, the majority of the difference in how employers treat mothers and fathers in the workplace is because of discrimination and our ingrained cultural bias.

In another study from Cornell University, sociology professor Shelley J. Correll sent out fake resumes to hundreds of employers. The fake resumes were identical, except some contained a line about the individual being a member of the parent-teacher association, which would suggest that they were themselves a parent. The study found that mothers were half as likely to be called back, while fathers were called back slightly more often than men whose resumes did not mention parenthood. 

In yet another Cornell University study, Professor Correll asked participants how much they would pay job applicants if they were employers. Mothers were offered on average $11,000 less than childless women and $13,000 less than fathers.

Professor Correll’s research found that employers rate fathers as the most desirable employees, followed by childless women, childless men and finally mothers. Employers also hold mothers to harsher performance standards and are less lenient when they are late.

Motherhood Penalty is Greater For Low-Income Mothers

Professor Budig’s other findings in the research study were consistent with the conclusion that low-income workers benefit the least and suffer the most economically from parenthood. For example, low-income women lost 6 percent in wages per child, which was two percentage points more than the average. This is perhaps not surprising as workers in the low-income bracket tend to have the least flexible schedules or comprehensive benefits like paid parental leave. Professor Budig found that low-wage women with children under 6 years old – when they need the most in-person care – paid a wage penalty five times as great as that of higher-paid women with young children. 

Even dad bonuses for men differed depending on their ethnic background. For example, the largest benefits of parenthood went to white and Latino men who were highly educated and in professional jobs. The smallest pay bumps went to unmarried African-American men who had less education and had manual labour jobs. 

What Employers Can Do to Fight the Motherhood Penalty at Work 

Employers can play an important part in helping to eliminate the career disadvantage bourne predominantly by mothers in their workplaces. It starts with first raising organizational awareness of the issue. On an individual level, it is important for individual managers to rethink how they approach hiring, work distribution, and promotion decisions and be mindful of any unconscious biases that may guide these decisions. Employers can also help to significantly shrink the motherhood penalty among staff by implementing paid parental leaves that are available to both men and women, along with flexible work arrangements for employees who are parents that support their ability to coordinate their work and family responsibilities. 

For more information on how to help eliminate the career disadvantages experienced by new mothers, please contact your Seabrook Workplace Law lawyer.

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