Mothers won't get a fair deal until fathers do too

The 'motherhood penalty' is part of a wider problem: that we still don't treat people like human beings.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 09 Feb 2017

Becoming a mother is a bad career move. It isn’t always the case, it certainly shouldn’t be the case, but the fact remains a woman’s job and earnings prospects plummet the moment she announces her pregnancy.

This isn’t the work of some conspiracy of misogynistic dinosaurs secretly controlling corporate recruitment. It’s because of a hard-hitting tag team of unconscious biases and an outdated approach to work in general.

Scientific management, popularised by Frederick Taylor in the early years of the 20th century, reduced workers to parts in a machine. You want your machines to be efficient, and their cogs to work hard without breaking. What good is a cog, Taylor would have asked, if it can decide to take a year out and then only work on Tuesdays?


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That viewpoint is thankfully anathema in modern business, in that very few would argue publicly in its defence. But that doesn’t mean its assumptions aren’t still hardwired into how we work, and therefore the way we progress.

We may allow flexible and part-time working, we may seek to stamp out unfair discrimination of any kind wherever we find it, but the norm for people who want to get ahead is still to show up early, leave late and be on email out of hours. Anyone who doesn’t fit that mould faces a penalty.

This rise of the ‘fatherhood penalty’

Parents have less time to give, and this puts them at a disadvantage. There are things parents need to do for and with their children that they can’t or won’t forgo for the sake of their career, and employers know it.

Historically, this penalty has applied to mothers, not fathers. In fact, research has shown that while mothers are paid between 10-20% less than non-mothers, fathers actually earn more than non-fathers.

There are early indications this could be changing. In Working Family’s Modern Families Index 2017, 47% of fathers said they would consider ‘downshifting’ (i.e. taking a lower effort, lower reward job) in order to reduce stress, while 38% would take a pay cut in exchange for more time.

A survey of 2,750 parents can never be entirely conclusive, of course. There’s still little evidence that dads face even remotely the same career obstacles as mums, as a group. But it does indicate they are increasingly willing to sacrifice career for family in a way they weren’t before.

From a gender equality perspective, that’s a good thing. Mothers suffer a bigger penalty than fathers because employers assume the mother will take on the lion’s share of the parental responsibilities, from taking most of the available shared parental leave to leaving early to pick the kids up from school, to looking after them when the childcare falls through.

If fathers and mothers were expected to take equal shares of the burden, it would go a long way to undoing the motherhood penalty, and therefore resolving gender inequality.

But it would be a pyrrhic victory. The bigger problem isn’t that parenthood’s negative career burden disproportionately falls on women, but rather that parenthood has any negative career effects at all.

For organisations, workers and society in general, it is a terrible idea to punish people for becoming parents. People have important things in their lives that require their time – from health issues and looking after elderly relatives to volunteering and, yes, parenthood.

If employers don’t give people room to live, then the results will be only misery, disengagement, lost talent and lost productivity. We are none of us machines, and no amount of good intentions towards one group or another will be sufficient until we recognise that fact. 

Image credit: Max Pixel

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