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  • Writer's pictureStefanie Mockler, M.A.

The Motherhood Penalty: Understanding and Mitigating It

Updated: Dec 20, 2018

As a young, ambitious mother making my a move into the working world, I was almost immediately struck with the challenges that women face when trying to advance their careers while also building/maintaining a family. 

In fact, when writing personal statements for my graduate school applications, I wrote an entire section on the skills that being a young mother taught me. Among them were skills that I felt would be incredibly valuable to getting through a rigorous graduate program: time management, prioritization, work ethic, empathy, problem-solving, leaning on others, and so much more. It just so happens that many of these make for good leadership as well (more on that in a separate post...). 

To my surprise, I was told (by more than one person) that I should completely remove that section from my personal statement and avoid mentioning that I have a child at all. Reluctantly, I listened to this advice and ultimately, was accepted to the program that was my top choice. 

I had plans to focus my studies and research on health and wellness programs in organizations, yet...

That advice to hide my role as a mother and the far-reaching implications of it simply wouldn’t leave my mind.

Moreover, when I initially started graduate school, I was careful not to talk about my family responsibilities (which now, honestly brings tears to my eyes). None of my fellow grad students had children nor commuted a long way, and deep down, I was afraid that people would question my capability and commitment if they knew my full story. 

So, for a short time, I hid the most important parts of my life. I vividly remember crying on my way home one evening because I felt like a fraud and hated not being able to be my full self (being a mother was and still is a huge part of my identity). It made me question my own capability and worth for being in this program -- if you read my previous post, then you know this feeling made me dig in even harder and give it my very all, for better or for worse.

It’s worth noting that when I gained the courage to share my full story, not one person questioned my capability. In fact, I likely gained respect and sharing more of who I was allowed me to build even stronger, long-lasting relationships (which I still have to this day).

These impactful and unfortunate personal experiences, as well as watching and hearing about other women struggling with the same issues, led me to pursue a research path focused on better understanding and minimizing penalties that mothers face, both in their careers and personal lives.

The deeper I dove into the literature, the more I recognized the systematic and distinctly human flaws that underlie these penalties. And, my instinctual fear of being viewed as less committed in my professional endeavors due to my family responsibilites? Turns out, that fear isn't unfounded.

Consider this: in S&P 500 companies, though women make up roughly 45% of personnel, only about 4% of Executive-level roles are occupied by women — that number shrinks significantly when we look at women of color.

So, although women are present in the workforce in entry-level and even management-level roles, they’re simply not present in roles where power is centralized and decisions are being made.

A Breakdown in the Leadership Pipeline

There’s a breakdown in the pipeline that many have tried to explain away using “women’s choices” as a rationale. I’ve heard things such as:

“Women simply aren’t interested in roles with greater amounts of responsibility.” 

“Surely she doesn’t want to take on this project — it requires travel and she has kids at home.”

“She selected this path to allow her flexibility to put her family first.” 

Men are rarely asked these questions, and fathers even less so. When a father has an opportunity to take on a unique project requiring travel, it’s often assumed that he has a caregiver/wife at home to take care of the childcare and household responsibilities. Rarely does anyone ask: “are you sure he can travel? What about his children?” 

As Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, women are assumed to want to lean out to make space for family responsibilities before they even begin their careers. In fact, research suggests that once marriage comes in the picture for women, observers immediately start to assume that a family is coming next (and naturally, that she’ll want to lean out to be a mother). 

These phenomena are referred to as the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood advantage — and they’re rooted deeply in our expectations for how women and men are and how theyshould behave. 

Women are expected to be communal, warm, and caring. Men are expected to be agentic, competitive, and dominant. When women and men express behaviors counter to these expectations, penalties can result. For example, a competitive and dominant woman may be described as cold or bitchy, while a warm and caring man may be viewed as weak. 

It’s pretty astounding that these stereotypes continue to exist in 2018 — yet, it also illustrates how deeply ingrained they are.

Trading Warmth for Competence

In 2013, Amy Cuddy and colleagues found that when women become mothers they are viewed as less competent, but warmer; whereas when men become fathers, they are viewed as warmer and they retain competence. In their research, these perceptions led to penalties in rates of promotion and hiring for women, but advantages for men. 

Essentially, women make a trade-off after having kids: warmth for competence. Yet, men retain competence and gain warmth. 

The problem with this picture, aside from the seemingly subtle, yet powerful, discrimination, is that these choices and perceptions are rooted in stereotypes — assumptions we ascribe to people based on their characteristics (race, gender, parenthood, etc). As described above, mothers are expected to put family-first, whereas men are expected to put their careers first. 

ASSUMPTIONS are at the core of these findings. Unchecked, unquestioned assumptions can lead to faulty decisions. We can all likely agree with this statement, but when we’re busy, overworked and moving fast, even the most thoughtful people can move forward without questioning themselves or their decisions. 

When women are assumed to be less committed so early in their careers, they may be passed up or looked over for high profile, challenging, and more visible opportunities that lead to career advancement. This is one contributor to the leaky leadership pipeline. 

Can the motherhood penalty be minimized? 

In my Master’s thesis research, I explored whether the motherhood penalty could be mitigated if individuals proactively expressed whether they wanted to be devoted to work, family, or both. 

I found that: yes, it sure can!

When women openly communicated that they were committed to their work and their family, they were less likely to be penalized and in fact, were viewed similarly to non-mothers and fathers, and equally as likely to be promoted and hired. 

When mothers only spoke of family OR work, they experienced penalties either at home or work. More specifically, a work-devoted mother was viewed as an ineffective and uncommitted parent; whereas a family-devoted mother was viewed as less competent and committed to work, but more effective as a parent.

What are the implications for women and managers? 

My research findings suggest that in order to minimize assumptions that can lead to stereotyping and penalties, women (and men, really) should be upfront and transparent with their goals and aspirations.

Don’t leave it up to others to assume what you need or want — have the conversation, and revisit it frequently. Our priorities and needs tend to shift through each life season, so it must be an ongoing dialogue and discussion.

Don’t leave your destiny up to interpretation on an observer’s part. Express your commitment. Share your goals and desires at work and at home. Be open, upfront, and transparent.

Educate others on the realities of stereotyping and allowing assumptions to guide decisions. Encourage your company to invest in cognitive bias and stereotyping training to offset the impact.

And for managers and organizational decision-makers, have the conversations with your team. Don’t make assumptions about what your direct reports may or may not want in their careers — ask the questions and have the conversation. What do you need at this point in your life? What are your goals for the next 6 months, 12 months, 2-3 years?

Encourage open dialogue and transparency, and whenever possible, question your quick decisions about people and their needs.

And importantly, for everyone, continue to question yourself and your assumptions. Are you making a decision based on objective data or may something be clouding your judgment? Ask a co-worker for feedback to ensure you're on the right track.



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