The Maternal Wall

Motherhood Bias: What to Know and How to Fight It

It affects women whether they are mothers or not.

We’ve all heard the anecdotes, and the numbers don’t lie: In the United States, many working mothers face a “motherhood bias” that punishes them for having children, by inhibiting both their professional progress and also — since the two go hand in hand — their lifetime earning potential.

It shouldn’t fall strictly to working mothers themselves to fix the issue: By pushing for progressive legislation that furthers equality in the workplace, helping to evolve workplace culture, and, yes, advocating for ourselves, working mothers and their allies can confront maternal penalties head on.


The education is there. The experience is, too. But working moms are still penalized in the workplace. According to nonprofit advocacy organization National Women’s Law Center, in 2017 “women who were mothers were recommended for significantly lower starting salaries, perceived as less competent, and less likely to be recommended for hire than non-mothers.”

The judgment that having children weakens mothers’ commitment and performance in the workplace is not only false, it’s harmful. And it directly impacts a woman’s ability to be treated and paid equally to her male counterparts.

Women lose an average of four percent of hourly earnings for each child they have. This stems from assumptions by colleagues and superiors that being mothers makes them less able to perform and less dedicated to their position. Adding insult to injury, men becoming parents often results in a “fatherhood bonus.” The New York Times reports that cultural prejudice against women drives this inequity.


The “motherhood penalty” also negatively impacts single women who are childless and have no plans to have children, or those married without children, due to the broadly held belief that women will become pregnant at some point.

Heidi Hartman, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, notes, “A pregnancy penalty doesn’t just hurt mothers or expectant women, married women or even childbearing women, it’s a bias that’s applied to all women.

The very notion that any working woman could become pregnant causes discrimination against her. Women are slammed with the maternal wall even before they choose to have children — or not.


The motherhood bias is most obvious when employers disregard working moms for salary bumps and promotions. But it’s not for lack of asking! A 2018 Women in the Workplace study found that “women are negotiating for raises and promotions as often as men, but they do not always get the same outcomes.”

Even though the workforce includes 70 percent of American women with kids, working mothers must hustle harder, perform better and constantly prove their commitment to their job. Often this comes with little reward, and salary impact that continues throughout their careers.   

An October 2018 study by Goldman Sachs indicates that women returning to work after having children were often “downshifted,” whether they wanted to be or not. Employers pushed working moms into more “family friendly” positions, ultimately leading to lower profiles, pay and opportunity for advancement. This is doubly galling, given that data shows that mothers in some fields are actually more productive than their child-free counterparts.


Here’s the truth: Being a mom is an asset to professional growth, driving productivity, management skills and more. Researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership studied productivity of parents in the workplace, and found just what working mothers already know: “Raising a family helps develop skills such as negotiating, compromising, conflict resolution and multitasking.” 

Sarah Lux-Lee, founder of Mindr, sums it up best in her TEDxBushwickWomen talk: “Motherhood teaches us perspective and passion, focus and flexibility. It gives us humility and a hunger to achieve, provide and lead by example. Motherhood teaches us to be level-headed in the face of a crisis, dependable at every turn, and agile in the face of change. In short, motherhood makes us ninjas. And ninjas are an asset in any workplace.”


In addition to workplace discrimination for simply being a woman, mothers returning to full time jobs after having children face another layer of bias: being judged for seeming more dedicated to their position than their family. A 2010 study by sociological researchers Stephen Benard and Shelley Correll found that “even if mothers were unambiguously committed and competent, they were still discriminated against, as they were perceived as less warm and less likable.” 

Judgment like this drove Lindsay Mitchell and Lauren Brandt to create The Returnity Project, a platform providing resources, community and support for moms reentering the workforce. The Returnity Project is “on a mission to change the experience of returning to work from maternity leave, and to normalize conversations about the triumphs and struggles of working, parenting and adulting.” Mitchell and Brandt know that mothers bring essential qualities to the workforce, and the stories shared on The Returnity Project reinforce those beliefs. 

So, what actions can you take today to fight against the motherhood tax?


Legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2019 continues to strengthen equal pay laws and practices on a federal level. But companies themselves must implement procedures to change office culture to address and eliminate the motherhood penalty. 


Employers can begin actively working to do away with workplace discrimination and systemic bias, by putting into practice systems that don’t penalize working moms for their life choices. Here are just a few ways companies, managers and even colleagues can show they value working mothers:  

  • Create awareness If an employer acknowledges the challenges that women face when coming back to work after having children, it lessens the burden for working moms. Employers can start conversations about changing needs and expectations after returning to work. According to the Women in the Workplace study, 41 percent of employees are parents. When companies make it a priority to establish systems that create an empathetic work environment, they take important steps in confronting motherhood bias.
  • Include more paid parental leave The United States is one of the worst countries in the developed world for guaranteed paid leave for new mothers. When employers offer this benefit, they prove they value the worth of mothers. By creating a culture that welcomes mothers, these companies show they embrace the idea that a well-adjusted working mom equals a more productive employee. In addition to being more content employees, evidence shows that by working, moms can even give advantages to their children later in life.
  • Add job flexibility A 2016 employee benefits study by Fractl established that one of the most desired job “perks” is flexibility — in particular, more flexible start and end times and more options to work remotely. When companies acknowledge that parents must often adhere to stricter timeframes because of school and daycare schedules, they demonstrate an understanding of the pressure that working mothers face to “do it all.” Accommodating employers give all employees a chance to handle family obligations more easily.

More and more companies — including well-known tech giants Genentech, LinkedIn and IBM — are leading the charge in gender balance policies. Lean In offers a course, 50 Ways to Fight Gender Bias, which pairs a card-based activity with a short video series that companies can use to combat workplace discrimination. 


The hope is that continuing legislation toward closing the gender pay gap, and companies like these reaching 50 percent women employees in the near future (with others following suit), will lead to lessening motherhood bias in the workplace. But change doesn’t only begin with politicians or in the corporate boardroom. Working moms can advocate for themselves directly. 

  •  Be specific When a working mother is out of the office, there’s a common misperception that she’s dealing with family-related issues. Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law who studies workplace discrimination, suggests that when working remotely, working mothers detail their whereabouts or provide precise reasons for their absence. In her book “What Works for Women at Work,” Williams suggests that working moms should call out the motherhood penalty when it happens and ask, “I wonder if we’d say the same thing about a man.”  
  • Take initiative Williams also recommends being proactive upon returning from maternity leave. Meet with bosses and map out professional future plans and goals. Although continually providing proof of commitment can get tiresome, this transparency may help moms head off bias. 
  • Band together In her newest book, “A Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug,” Sarah Lacy, founder and CEO of Chairman Mom, writes “stand up for someone who gets talked over during a meeting. Spend time with women and recognize their strength.” It’s likely someone else in the office has faced a similar bias. Tapping into that shared experience provides a chance to create change and demand gender parity. 

From maternal bias cropping up before a woman even has a child to working moms being passed over for promotions or downshifted after coming back from maternity leave, it’s clear the motherhood penalty is alive and well. But there’s hope on the horizon: more laws to strengthen equal pay, more companies dedicated to achieving gender balance, more available resources for moms returning to the workforce, and more working mothers standing up to this type of bias. Here’s to all the ninjas.

Hannah Fairbanks is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. When she’s not writing, you might find her reading, packing bento box lunches for her two young daughters, and adventuring around the Bay Area. 

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