Motherhood Penalty At Work: Yellow Eve Illustration

The ‘motherhood penalty’ and the gender gap in senior roles

Hannah Ruth, explains what the ‘motherhood penalty’ is and why it causes a gender gap in senior leadership roles.

In a year where we have witnessed the triumphs of key female leaders – Kamala Harris becoming the world’s first Black, Indian-American, Asian vice president-elect, Jacinda Ardern’s successful approach to the COVID-19 crisis and landslide re-election – it would be easy to be blinded by the beams of those few top women in the spotlight.

However, we can’t forget that women are still hugely underrepresented in senior roles worldwide. Just 5% of CEOs in the FTSE 100 are women, and the number of senior positions held by women globally stands at just 29%.

This is against the backdrop of a culture in which the word “progressive” has been increasingly thrown around in recent years, especially in 2020. The events of this year have forced even the most illuminated amongst us to reflect inward. It’s been a time to check our own behaviours and choices, conscious and otherwise. So much of the world is fighting for compassion, equality and fairness this year; so why is this story of gender gaps such an archaic story?

The motherhood penalty

The “motherhood penalty” is a long-since coined phrase, created by sociologists that argued that the physical limitations and demands of motherhood cause systematic disadvantages for women.

Women with children are more likely to need to work part-time or with reduced hours, and those who do so find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to promotions and new opportunities. There is a lack of reconciliation between flexible working and motherhood, and a 2020 report from the Association of British Insurers indicates that 80% of the seniority gap is explained by this.*

Despite a few large, global companies like Dell and Fujitsu leading the way with strong and fair flexible working policies – and smaller businesses taking to LinkedIn to boast the same in their talent searches – 31% of all organisations still choose not to offer flexible working*.

Companies that put high demand on their employees’ time are still persisting. A 2019 survey by Flexjobs found that 30% of people were searching for a new role due to a lack of flexibility with their current employer*. This is a fact which leaves ambitious career women in a seemingly bleak position should they wish to start a family – as they are still viewed as the primary carer. As the ABI report states, “It is likely that women see an irreconcilable tension with flexible working and seniority”; the more senior you get, the less flexibility you are able to have.

Unconscious bias

Talk to a career woman who is considering having a family and immediately hear the fear of her leaving her professional position (this is literally the motherhood penalty in action). Not only is there the fear of falling behind (in the months on maternity leave), but there is also the fear of judgement and changed perception from colleagues and future employers.

Studies have shown that women without children are two times more likely to be called for an interview*, as compared with similarly qualified mothers, in what is known as “maternal wall bias.” Plus, recent research commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust found that HR decision-makers are five times more likely to say that men, rather than women, are ambitious*.

When it comes to being considered for promotion, many employers encourage dedication, commitment and “going above and beyond”, and in some instances such characteristics are scored in the appraisal process. It stands to reason, then, that women who take time away from work – for maternity leave and then ongoing childcare – could lose out.

Self-limiting beliefs

Researchers have theorised that one reason for the seniority gap is that women are less likely to throw their hat into the ring for promotions and less likely to believe they’d be capable of achieving ambitious roles— on account of their own limiting self-beliefs. In the Young Women’s Trust survey, eight times as many said that male employees were more likely than women employees to ask for a pay rise, and a similar proportion said male employees were also more likely to ask for a promotion.

However, contradictory evidence suggests it’s not so much that women don’t ask, as that they don’t get. Lean In’s 2019 Women in the Workplace study suggests that while women negotiate for promotions and pay-rises more often than men do, they’re far less likely to receive them – and found that for every 100 women promoted to management, 130 men are elevated.*

Sherly Sandber, founder of Lean in, attributes this to the unconscious assumptions we all hold about women and men; “We expect men to be assertive, look out for themselves, and lobby for more — so there’s little downside when they do it. But women must be communal and collaborative, nurturing and giving, focused on the team and not themselves, lest they be viewed as self-absorbed.”

How can we change the status quo?

With 46% of 18-30-year-old women stating they want to be the boss one day, there is huge capacity to change the narrative.

PWC’s survey report ‘Time to Talk: what has to change for women at work’ highlights three key routes forward for closing the seniority gap and addressing some of the blockers.

More transparency between leaders and employees with regards what success looks like and how it can be achieved will help ensure a fair playing field. Sharmile Karve, Global Diversity & Inclusion Leader at PWC says “Employers must focus on creating an environment where women — and men — can have open and unambiguous conversations on performance and progression benchmarks. But greater transparency must also go hand in hand with efforts to mitigate unconscious biases and stereotyping that could impact career progression.”

Shift in culture. Organisations need to address the disconnect between their employees’ priorities and values, and the flexible working programmes they offer. This means entire cultural shifts, whereby people are valued and rewarded for their performance over their presence.

Networks which mobilise women. Social media and digital has made networking accessible, meaning more women now have the opportunity to access the same relationship-building and “who you know” prospects as found in exclusive boys’ clubs of old. Aside from waiting for organisations to overhaul their progression models, women can take action themselves by joining networks dedicated to empowering and up-skilling in their careers, and by making the most of pooling and sharing their knowledge, skills and experiences.

Hannah Ruth Hassack - Social Media Expert

Hannah Ruth

Hannah Ruth is a social media expert and a contributing writer for Yellow Eve. You can connect with her here. 


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