What is the motherhood penalty?

The motherhood penalty refers to a systemic bias in the workplace that disadvantages mothers in terms of wages, perceived competence and opportunity.

There is a 7% difference in pay between mothers and non-mothers working full-time, according to the TUC. This gap is even greater than that between men and non-mothers, increasing when a mother is single, the more children she has, and in line with her education and social class.

Why does this problem exist in today’s workplace?

Economically, employment interruptions due to pregnancy and maternity leave mean women are forced to seek out ‘family friendly’ part-time roles, which results in less (or, more often than not, lower) pay.

However, sociologically, it begins with employers building stereotypical expectations of mothers into their hiring practices. A mother has to split her time and energy between home and work, making her supposedly ‘less competent’, ‘less committed’ than a man or non-mother.

For men, the opposite is true. The TUC estimates that a full-time working father is paid 21% more than a childless man, as well as being rewarded with promotions and pay rises. So, why is parenthood only negatively impacting women?

Culturally, there is a negative bias about working mothers, who are seen to be rejecting their traditional role as “caretaker” and undermining the male status of “breadwinner”. The UK also has the second most expensive childcare system in the world as a proportion of income, financially reinforcing a need for these binary roles. As a result, women do almost three times the unpaid care work of men, limiting their careers to working simply to pay for their childcare, or taking yet another penalty to work part-time.

So, what can employers do to banish the motherhood penalty?

Implement ‘returnships’

This is a high-level internship for those who have been out of professional work for an extended period of time. A number of large companies, such as PayPal and JPMorgan, have demonstrated the ability of ‘returnships’ to retain and further develop the skills of working mothers.

Affordable childcare

A large organisation might have the resources to step in and provide this directly. However, most employers can introduce an affordable childcare reimbursement, or partner with local childcare offices to provide parental discounts.

Flexible working

Whilst a top issue for both men and women since the pandemic, McKinsey reports that a mere 8% of mothers would prefer to work full-time in the office. As well as easing the pressures of juggling work and home life, flexible and hybrid working models allow mothers to pay better attention to their physical and mental health.

Paternity leave

The introduction of shared parental leave has attempted to promote equal parenting, but because of poor pay and restricted eligibility for fathers, its impact has been limited.  Employers need to make a particular effort to encourage a longer paternity leave that is job-protected and with income-related pay. A longer paternity leave decreases the gendered gap in unpaid labour and means mothers can earn more over their lifetimes.


We at Tell Jane are able to offer pregnancy at work training to organisations and a gender pay gap reporting service. If your company would benefit from advice on how to demonstrate your commitment to gender and parental equality in the workplace, email us at hello@telljane.co.uk.

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