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The “Motherhood Penalty”—What It Is & How We Overcome It

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Katherine Kleveland, photographed by Nicki Sebastian

Even if you aren’t familiar with the term “Motherhood Penalty,” chances are the concept of discrimination against women and mothers in the workplace has affected you and almost everyone else you know (with children, or not). To help break down the subconscious bias that defines the Motherhood Penalty (as well as the “Fatherhood Bonus”), we dialed up Brigid Schulte, an award-winning journalist (we’re big fans of her eye-opening book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time) and director of The Better Life Lab at Washington D.C.-based think tank, New America. Below, a primer.

The Motherhood Penalty starts with the deep-seated belief that a woman’s place is in the home. “It’s rooted in very deeply held cultural beliefs that mothers should be the ones to do the bulk of caregiving—both for children and for others,” says Schulte. According to several studies, including a recent Pew Research Report, the belief that men should be breadwinners and women should be caregivers permeate the minds of both men and women, even in 2017. “On one hand people give lip service and say ‘Well, that’s okay, she’s a working mother.’ But on the other hand, research shows there is a very deep discomfort with the fact that there are working mothers, unless those mothers somehow signify that they are putting their family first. So, if she works part-time or if she works because she has to provide for her family, not because she wants to,” says Schulte.

This deep-seated belief leads to unconscious bias and workplace discrimination. When women with children stay late at work and live up to the “ideal worker” (24/7 worker) prototype, she’s seen as “not a very good mother, and therefore not a very good person,” says Schulte, in reference to the “ideal mother/woman” model that requires that women with children prioritize caregiving above all else. (Listen to Schulte on this podcast discuss this concept in depth.) Meanwhile, she points to social science research in which a co-worker walks past the empty office of a man vs. the empty office of a woman. “When a person walks past a man’s office and he’s not there, the automatic assumption is that he’s out with a client or it’s work-related,” says Schulte. “Meanwhile, if you walk past the office of a mother and she’s not there, the automatic assumption is that she’s off doing preschool pickup or at a school play.” In addition to negative water cooler chatter that can start to erupt around a hard-working mother, these unconscious bias and oftentimes false assumptions can lead to pay cuts and hiring woes. “Economic research shows that when employers are looking at similarly situated people, who have similar experience and similar education, and the only thing that’s different is that one is a mother and one is a father, men will be offered the job far more often and at a higher rate, particularly fathers. Mothers are offered jobs far less often and at much less pay,” says Schulte. “What that shows is the unconscious belief that a man who is the father will work harder to provide, to be that breadwinner. So, he gets what is called the ‘Fatherhood Bonus’ in some social science circles. And a mother gets the Motherhood Penalty, because there is the belief that she really shouldn’t be there and will be too distracted by family responsibilities and less committed to the job. Again, the assumption is that men don’t have or shouldn’t have caregiving responsibilities. Bias works both ways.”

Men receive a “Fatherhood Bonus,” but only if their caregiving is limited or hidden. As mentioned above, research has shown that fatherhood status makes men more attractive hires, thanks to the subconscious notion that they will work harder to provide for their families. Meanwhile, on the flip side, if a man makes his caregiving responsibilities more visible, he’ll be penalized. “There is research by Laurie Rudman out of Rutgers that found that both men and women look down on a man who was very open about needing time off for caregiving—in this study, it was listed as caring for his mother. That male worker who needed flexibility and regular time off was seen as less committed, less intelligent in some cases, and less promote-able,” says Schulte, explaining that men who go “above board” and ask for regular flexibility in order to be caregivers actually get hit with stigma that is often harsher than that for women. “The expectation is that women need flexibility, because women need to be the caregiver. And that’s how flexibility gets stigmatized and associated with gender and with someone who is seen as a lesser worker.”

Knowing about the Motherhood Penalty and the stigma against caregiving and flexibility is necessary for change. “We’re all swimming in this water. And the more clearly we can all begin to see it, then the better we’ll all be able to figure out how to change it,” says Schulte. “Individually, organizationally, through your team, and also as a society. Because it’s just simply not fair. It’s not fair to our kids, to our families, and it’s definitely not fair to women. But it’s also not fair to our society or economy. Look at what we’re losing—this is a squandering of ideas and talents.” Schulte adds that both men and women (with and without children) not being given time and flexible schedules in order to care for others or themselves is having and will continue to have dire consequences. “It’s in our best interest to have motivated and skilled and rested workers. And motivated and skilled and rested citizens. And for future generations, you don’t want to have workers that are so burnt out that they have nothing left for their children, regardless of where they sit on the socio-economic scale.”

Business leaders need to lead the change, but individuals can also make moves. Schulte advises both business leaders and workers to take a step back and redefine their values and priorities, focusing on what good work is, how good work is measured (not simply in hours), and how that work gets done. “Every company is going to have to figure this out for themselves,” she says. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Whereas now, the one-size-fits-all model applied everywhere is the ‘ideal worker’ who is is always on, always present in the office space, available all hours on email. But that is just not working for anybody.” For individuals wanting more flexibility in their work, Schulte advises working closely with your supervisor to discuss what your work is and coming up with a flexible work plan which you can tweak and experiment with. “Asking about these new possibilities is important, as is asking in terms that your boss will understand, which is what is the benefit to them. And you can clearly make the case that it does benefit them.” For more step-by-step advice, check our our piece on How To Ask For More Flexibility At Work. Schulte also suggests using the resources on the benefits of effective, flexible work she lays out in The Better Work Toolkit.

We all need to keep an eye on policy change. Until caregiving is not just seen as a woman’s “problem” or even a parent’s “problem,” it will be hard for the Motherhood Penalty to go away. Schulte advises keeping one’s eye on making sure any new laws that are passed are gender-neutral and completely inclusive from the start. (Read her piece The Case Against Maternity Leave to further explore this point of view.) One such bill to look at, which is currently pending in Congress, is the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have put forward, outlining that all U.S. workers would receive at least 2/3 of their pay for up to 12 weeks when taking time off for personal health conditions (including pregnancy and childbirth) or to care for others. Ivanka Trump is also focusing on paid parental leave initiatives, but Schulte explains that limiting benefits to parents is short-sighted. “It’s really important to have family and medical leave, because as society ages, more and more of us are going to have elder care responsibilities. So, again, let’s get this right the first time,” says Schulte. “It’s not just about parents who need to have time away from work to take care of their lives and care-taking responsibilities. That’s why we would argue for a much broader paid family and medical leave policy than the Trump administration has proposed.” In addition to these national initiatives, there are a number of states and local municipalities considering paid family medical leave bills like those that currently exist in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Schulte advises finding out what conversations are swirling around locally, start there, and make sure local businesses are a part of those conversations from the very start.

For more on this multi-faceted topic, check out Schulte and her colleagues’ work at Better Life Lab and the Better Life Lab hub on Slate.

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