The ‘motherhood penalty’ stings no matter how much governments do

Everything’s just wonderful for working mothers in places like Sweden, Norway and Iceland.

Or so we like to believe. Especially when sharing examples about extraordinary government childcare subsidies, great government-led paid parental leave policies, mandated equal pay – as what recently occurred in Iceland – and even quotas for women on boards in Norway.

But according to various studies published in the New York Times, all that legislative work hasn’t been enough. Indeed, the pay gap in Scandinavia still has women earning 15 to 20% less than their male counterparts, much like in Australia and the United States.

The fact is that kids still hurt a woman’s earnings and career options, significantly more so than they hurt the earnings and careers of men. And no amount of affordable childcare (although that would certainly help) and paid parental leave can account for the massive cultural shift that’s needed.

The motherhood penalty affecting a woman’s earnings can start immediately, especially with one in two mothers in Australia saying they have experienced discrimination related to duties, pay or other conditions while pregnant or shortly after having a baby. As we’ve seen in example after example on Women’s Agenda, pregnant women are made redundant. They’re overlooked for promotions. They’re penalised during pay negotiations because they’re going on leave. They’re seen as being less committed to their work.

Following pregnancy, it’s estimated that mothers returning to work after 12 months of parental leave will suffer a wage penalty of 7%, which will later increase to 12%. That penalty increases again with every subsequent child she has. For Dads, it’s different. A number of studies have found that fathers can often see their earnings increase after having children.

It’s not just a matter of lost income for mothers due to taking time out of the workforce, it’s also often the need for women to pursue careers and jobs that are ‘family friendly’, and therefore frequently undervalued. In some cases, there’s the need to give up a career or job altogether because the hours were simply incompatible with kids.

Then there are also the quiet assumptions and bias that face mothers in workplaces: overlooking her for a promotion because the way such a role has previously been done won’t fit her schedule; giving her lesser projects because she needs to leave at 5pm; the assumption she’s ‘parking’ her career and is OK with not being fairly assessed or given decent tasks.

And, from a mother’s perspective, many of us will also not risk leaving a job, going for a promotion or changing careers, simply due to the fear the new opportunity may not be as flexible as we need.

Of course the ramifications run deeper that the immediate wages lost from all of the above. The loss of earnings women experience around the time they have children often becoming irreversible – resulting in them retiring with half the superannuation of men.

That’s why on Mothers Day last year, the Diversity Council of Australia urged men to take on a greater share of responsibilities at home, and for organisations to better find ways to address the “motherhood penalty”.

At the time, it suggested organisations should aim to improve and extend their paid parental leave policies; to provide women with additional superannuation contributions; to better support new mothers during pregnancy and when returning to work; to ensure flexibility is available to all employees, no matter what their level; to review wage setting and pay scales; to consider pay transparency; and to establish gender neutral performance evaluation and development criteria that don’t disadvantage those working flexibly.

Governments can and should do more to address the gender pay gap (a pay rise for childcare workers would be a massive start) and the financial penalties mothers face. But a cultural shift is also necessary – that’s not just a matter of what happens in ‘the home’ but also what’s happening in the office. Addressing workplace policies and procedures will help, but an entire overhaul of attitudes and behaviours is what’s really needed.

And as I’ve previously written, there’s a role that mothers can also play in revolting against the system, particularly those who are working part time or flexibly. Check out my wish-list for mothers working ‘part time’ this year.

Career Money Life offers Parental Leave and Return to Work programs to assist mums in transitioning back to work – whether that be returning to their current employer, working part-time, starting a business, or something else. Our flexible offerings allow employees to self-select services that best suit their needs. Contact us to learn more. 

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