When Ann Crittenden had her first child she was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, a financial reporter for The New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. None of this seemed to matter, she said, when she became a mother. Whereas once she’d been “the Ann Crittenden” at fancy Washington D.C. cocktail parties, now she was “just a mom.” Responding to this experience in The Price of Motherhood, published in 2002, Crittenden wrote that she felt like she’d “shed status like the skin off a snake.”
That was 15 years ago, but women continue to pay a penalty for choosing to be parents—measured in cold hard cash alongside that sinking feeling of irrelevance. And it’s getting worse. How bad is it? Bad enough that motherhood is one of the single strongest predictors of both bankruptcy and poverty in the U.S.
We call it the “motherhood penalty.” Every child born to or adopted by a woman decreases her income by 4%, such that the average mother makes between 5 and 10% less than she would have otherwise. A man’s income, in contrast, goes up by 6%. They see a “fatherhood premium.” Becoming a parent harms women’s earning potential and, in an extra twist of the knife, it gives men an assist.
One explanation for the divergence in mothers’ and fathers’ incomes is that women are more likely than men to take time out of the workforce or switch to a less time-intensive and lower-paid career. Fathers do the inverse, trying harder at work, staying later, gunning more aggressively for promotions, all on the assumption that his parenting is measured by the size of his paycheck.
Both of these things happen—some women lean out and some men lean in—but this only accounts for part of the difference in pay. Sociologist Michelle Budig finds that women’s decreased work effort accounts for only about a third of the motherhood penalty, while men’s increased effort accounts for only 16% of his fatherhood bonus. This, she says, “still leaves the vast majority” of the income difference unexplained.
The rest of the penalty and premium, research shows, is accounted for by bias against mothers and in favor of fathers. We know this, first, because we see the penalty even among mothers who work as hard or harder than fathers and women without children. Many studies confirm that mothers put in the same time and effort as fathers—maybe more—yet are still evaluated as less committed and competent.
Law professor Joan C. Williams, renown for her research on gender at work, has shown that managers and co-workers simply believe mothers are lesser employees, reading identical behavior differently depending on whether a woman has children. A childless woman lost in thought at her desk is assumed to be thinking about work; a mother is assumed to be thinking about what’s for dinner. When not in the office, the childless woman’s availability is assumed, even after hours, while mothers are seen as decidedly off the clock. Mothers’ tardiness is punished more harshly. Women without children are given the benefit of the doubt because their commitment to work is presumed, not discounted.
Bosses and co-workers, moreover, might see a new mother through a “haze of femininity.” Suddenly read as sweeter, more emotional, and less aggressive than her pre-motherhood self, she’s no longer perceived to be a go-getter at work. And, if mothers break through that haze, showing themselves to be just as efficient and effective, they may be seen as a bad mother—that is, a bad person—and penalized for being unlikable.
Experimental research confirms these biases. In a classic study, sociologist Shelley Correll and her colleagues asked individuals to judge hypothetical job applicants. Some résumés indicated that the applicant was an officer in a parent-teacher association; others left off that line. Respondents judged apparent mothers as considerably less competent and committed than women who did not appear to be mothers. Reflecting these judgments, presumed non-mothers were 6 times more likely to be recommended for hire; 8.2 times more likely to be recommended for management; and offered a 7.9% higher salary. For men, the results went in the opposite direction.
Alongside these findings, Correll and her colleagues reported a test of these results in real life. They sent 1,276 of their fictitious résumés to 638 actual employers. Non-mothers were more than twice as likely as mothers to receive a call for a job interview. Inversely, fathers were almost twice as likely to be called as non-fathers. These results suggest that employers draw on stereotypes about moms and dads when hiring, and not just in theory.
Way back in 2002, Crittenden was haunted by the feeling that motherhood reduced her status in the eyes of her colleagues. Now we know that prejudice against mothers is the “strongest form of workplace gender discrimination” on record. Exacerbated by the fatherhood premium, it adds up to hundreds of thousands of lost dollars for women.
On this Mother’s Day, do more than thank your mother, or the mother of your children, for what she does at home. Recognize and thank her for what she does at work, too.