The Motherhood Pay Penalty

Sep 7, 2022
Bethany Carter

There is more to the gender pay gap than gender alone. Family arrangements play a huge part. Did you know that the ‘motherhood penalty’ makes up 80 per cent of the gender pay gap?

The ‘motherhood pay penalty’ refers to the pay gap between working mothers and similar women without dependent children. By the age of 42, mothers who are in full-time work are earning 11 per cent less than full-time women without children. (TUC/IPPR Research).

Motherhood has a significant impact on the pay of many women after they return to work, which is especially true for women who had children earlier in their lives. This has created a trend of young women ‘rushing to the top’ in an attempt to secure senior positions at work BEFORE they start their families.

The result? Stress. Burnout.

Future mothers are paying the price for inequality from the very beginning of their careers.

The motherhood pay penalty is a complex issue, and it’s not something that can be resolved by salary alone…

When men and women can take equal roles in the home, it levels the playing field in the workplace. Employees need shared parental leave so that men and women have the opportunity to share the load more equally. Men need better paternity leave options that they can actually afford to take.

Part-time and flexible working options should be available to everyone, not just those in lower paid positions. When it’s not only mothers who occupy part-time and flexible positions, there is no stigma attached. When new mothers are given a stepping stone back to full-time work once their children are older, they are more likely to advance their careers.

Joeli Brearley, founder of the Pregnant Then Screwed campaign and author of The Motherhood Penalty: How to stop motherhood being the kiss of death for your career, says:

“No country is immune. Even the countries that we see as the Nirvana – Sweden, Norway, Denmark – still have instances of pregnancy and maternity discrimination. We have spent centuries in the Western world in particular seeing women as mothers. If you have children, your primary role is to be a mother. There are these deeply entrenched biases towards women – from the point they get pregnant, they’re seen as distracted and uncommitted to their jobs.


Discrimination can be as extreme as my scenario where you get sacked. But it can also be demotions, bullying and harassment, it can be about flexible working arrangements, just being cast aside and ignored. In countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway, we do see women that experience bullying and harassment, or their career stalls, they immediately hit that glass ceiling. In other countries, it’s more severe.


In America, women don’t automatically get maternity leave: one in four women in America return to work 10 days after giving birth. Many women feel they have to leave their jobs, so they’re forced out in a way. In all of these countries, the stories are devastating, and they strip women of their confidence, of their economic empowerment and that should be something that we’re all very worried about.”

Two days after Joeli Brearley told her employer she was pregnant, she received an unexpected voicemail from her female CEO saying her services were no longer required. A routine doctor’s appointment then found Brearley was having a high-risk pregnancy – which forced her to abandon any attempt to challenge the discrimination by taking her employer to a tribunal.

The experience “ate away” at her for 18 months until she channelled her anger into the now global campaign to help other women. Read Joeli’s suggestions on how childcare and paternity leave can reduce the gender pay gap in this recent World Economic Forum feature.

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