Debating the Motherhood Penalty

motherhood penaltyBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

We’ve all heard the saying there are two sides to every story and that’s never been more true than with the seemingly new phenomena that has been deemed the “motherhood penalty,” which asserts that working mothers get passed up for raises and promotions at a higher frequency than single women without children. Not only that, but recent studies have also shown that working fathers experience no such professional limitations or wage penalties as a result of having a family.

Women in the corporate world have had to contend with these issues for years now, so the results of the award winning Cornell study entitled, Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty, weren’t very surprising when they were published in the American Journal of Sociology. According to the study, experiments found that “mothers were penalized on a host of measures, including perceived competence and recommended starting salary. Men were not penalized for, and sometimes benefited from, being a parent. The audit study showed that actual employers discriminate against mothers, but not against fathers.” None of this, of course, is an issue of contention among working women. What’s creating the real controversy is who is getting the shorter end of the stick in terms of pay and promotions: working moms or women with no children.

In Defense of Working Mothers

One of Getting a Job’s co-authors, Shelley Correll, was recently quoted as saying that she wasn’t surprised to find that mothers were discriminated against, but was “very surprised by the magnitude of the discrimination.” Correll and the other researchers sent out fake resumes for both a childless woman and a mom; both were equally qualified and the only difference was that the mom’s resume listed “Parent-Teacher Association coordinator” under the heading “other relevant activities” as a discreet way of informing employers that it was a parent’s resume. The researchers quickly discovered that the moms were viewed less favorably than the non-moms and were less likely to be hired. Even more disturbing, mothers were offered an average of $11,000 a year less in compensation than the childless job candidate with the same qualifications.

The pay gap between mothers and childless women is actually larger than the pay gap between women and men. Why the discrimination against mothers seeking employment?

No company, small or large, wants to admit to blatant discrimination, so gathering information and statistics as to why working mothers are seen as unfavorable has been nearly impossible. There seems to be an unspoken consensus in corporate America, however, that working mothers are perceived to be less committed to their work and their jobs than fathers and women without children because of their family obligations. What’s known for sure is that working moms looking for employment face countless disadvantages, including being less likely to be hired and being offered much lower salaries than their childless female peers with the same experience, education, and background.

One simple solution: omit the fact that you’re a parent. Many would argue that mentioning your status as a parent in an interview or on a resume is unnecessary anyhow, but the fact that women may feel forced to lie about their life in order to gain employment is proof enough that this is a valid and rampant form of discrimination and must be recognized as such. Also, many women must mention the fact that they’re parents as a way of explaining a large gap in their resume or as a way of highlighting their leadership abilities as performed in the PTA.

The Other Side of the Story

All of these studies would make the case seem pretty cut and dry: working mothers are discriminated against and treated unfairly. But those single, childless working women who seem to have it made are treated just as poorly – and according to one, working moms are part of the problem.

A female executive at a leading hospital in Washington chose to remain anonymous, but she asserts that the pay gap that favors women without children is, in some cases, deserved.

“As a single woman with a single female assistant, we are the ones who stay late when a deadline looms or a critical event needs extra time; we work late and stay weekends because working moms need to tend to their children. Others from the department or the company commonly cite a need to attend a child’s event or a family commitment as a reason why they cannot be available outside of traditional working hours. I completely understand and applaud this dedication to a prior commitment – having a family and raising children – but it’s unrealistic to think that anyone of any gender who is unavailable should receive the same benefits as someone who is always available,” she said.

“The motherhood penalty is getting a lot of attention, but I have spent years in corporate jobs where a mom I was working with would constantly make apologies, but seldom made herself available because a son or daughter needed her to be somewhere. I guess it’s inevitable, but the real penalty seems to be on the men and the single women who are left to work late or take all of the business trips.”

Unfinished Business

No matter which side of the fence you’re on, there’s no denying the existence of what’s being called “the motherhood penalty.” But Joanne Brundage, the Executive Director of Mothers & More, a non-profit organization that provides a nationwide network of local chapters for mothers who are – by choice or circumstance – altering their participation in the paid workplace over the course of their active parenting years, believes this problem is the result of unresolved feminist issues. According to Brundage:

“The motherhood penalty is based on some very deep-seated cultural assumptions and stereotypes about mothers and motherhood – that caring for children is not real work with true social and economic value, that motherhood dumbs women down, that women have less commitment to their paid work once they become mothers, that a ‘good’ mother does not/should not have personal ambitions. Part of the problem is that many mothers themselves are conflicted about whether they deserve to be penalized in the paid workplace for having this second full-time job. One of the most tenacious cultural assumptions many of us share is that motherhood equals selfless/self-sacrificing; that once one becomes a mother, caring for yourself and caring for your children are mutually exclusive.”

She continued:

“The way society looks at mothers today is very similar to how society looked at women 50 years ago. Women then were thought to be less intelligent, less capable, and less effective in the workplace. Those who excelled in ‘a man’s world’ were considered cold and unnatural. Women themselves had been raised to share that view even if it didn’t seem right or fair. It was, as Betty Friedan so aptly coined it, ‘the problem with no name.’ The issues mother’s face today are the same as those women as a gender faced decades ago. It is our current problem with no name; it is the unfinished business of the women’s movement.”