It came as a surprise when studies showed that working women hailing from different socioeconomic backgrounds, be it a RMG worker or a corporate leader, refrained from having children in the fear of losing the job or not getting promotions after the maternity leave. The inherent reason behind this was tied to the motherhood penalty that they wanted to avoid in their career.

And this brings us to the question of what exactly is the motherhood penalty.

Motherhood penalty refers to the systematic wage gap and low perceived competence that working mothers face as compared to the non-mothers and men in the workplace. This bias might harm the working mothers of all levels of the organizations (from entry levels to the leadership position) who might face wage penalty or hiring penalty at different points of their career just because of having children.



The corporate world still seems to have been stuck in the loophole of preferring men as their leaders. Still now, only 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs and only 2% of S&P’s 500 CEOs are women. And according to the Harvard Business Review, there is hardly any sign that the numbers will increase drastically. 

Only 3% of the decision making in the media industry is made by women. Thus, the vast majority of decisions of how women get to be portrayed are dictated by men. This is making it more difficult to change the negative perception that employers and people, in general, might have regarding the competencies and dedication that working mothers have for their work.



The motherhood penalty that women faced subsequently leads to what we know as gender pay gap. Whereas men enjoyed more than 6% rise in pay on average when they had kids, women had to face a decrease of 4% in their pay per child. This is mainly because after having children, men are perceived to be more dependable and hardworking individuals as compared to women- who are thought to become busier with taking care of the child.

In the USA, working mothers received a 7.9% lower starting wage than non-mothers, which is 8.6% lower than the starting salary recommended for working fathers. The pattern is reversed among men, with fathers receiving a slightly higher starting wage than childless men.

According to a research done under Harvard Kennedy School, the working mothers got a 10% lower competency rating than non-mothers. Moreover, working mothers also faced discrimination when it came to promotion. 



With the physical barrier of workplace being shattered because of the new work-from-home culture, the working moms have to deal with their employers, resolve job issues and manage their children and household chores 24/7. Surely, more work than what their male counterpart might do. The burden of household chores and caregiving have increased disproportionately for women on the onset of pandemic.

Moreover, the closures of schools, daycares and the starting of the online classes of children have imposed additional responsibilities for the working mothers. A female Professor of a renowned university of our country expressed, “there is a need of a proper working environment for work which is not always present at home. I now have to handle my work, home and my little child simultaneously, which is an added pressure.”

Things become more difficult for working mothers with smaller children, who need constant care and cannot handle the routine and technology of the online platform all by themselves.

The motherhood penalty and people’s perception are pushing working mothers to be twice as concerned as fathers that their job success would be adversely affected due to their pandemic caregiving obligations. Many senior-level women, who are more likely to be mothers than women at other levels, are feeling stressed out as a result of the daunting pressures at work and at home, according to the study. There have been 2.4 million additional cases of burnout due to the pandemic.

According to CBS new, companies have promoted less women in leadership roles during the pandemic, in spite of the findings of the Harvard Business Review, which stated that female leaders are better at handling crisis due to their better interpersonal skills. The research also showed that working mothers were 6 times less likely to be hired than non-mothers.



Facing wage and hiring penalty due to motherhood can push many working mothers to quit on their jobs. On top of that, the caregiving crisis and burden that followed the pandemic is forcing many women to leave jobs or reduce their working hours. In September 2020, 865,000 women left the workforce in the United States, relative to 216,000 men. 

A recent report by Mckinsey & Company startled the world when it was found that 1 in every 4 women is thinking of downshifting their career or leaving their work due to COVID 19. Some experts believe that this is the consequence of the penalty and the discrimination that working mothers face.  



Despite the challenges, women’s contribution in tackling the global pandemic has been praiseworthy. The United Nations Chief, Antonio Guterres commended their work by reflecting, “Women make up 70% of frontline healthcare employees, many of whom come from culturally and ethnically disadvantaged communities and are at the bottom of the economic ladder.”  The UN Chief also highlighted that Women-led nations have seen fewer deaths and are on the road to growth.

Despite all the critical role played during the pandemic, women are still facing motherhood penalties and discrimination in the workplace. The UN Chief himself said, “too often, services are delivered by women, but decisions are made by men.”



In this time of crisis, the organizations need to come forward to make managing work easier for the working mothers

  • Ensure mental health support– specialized mental healthcare can help the strained mothers better cope with the additional stress. An employee of a leading social enterprise of Bangladesh shared, “The Counselling services provided by my organization helped me deal with my anxiety in this crisis. The empathetic words from a professional really motivated me to start days with a positive mindset even in these gloomy days!”
  • Set up day care facilities– A survey by International Finance Corporation found that 61% of more than 300 companies did not have any childcare facilities and 9% of those companies were unaware that it is mandated by law that they have to set daycare center for its female employees. Having a day care center in the organization will greatly benefit the working mothers if they have no other caregiving person for the child at home
  • Introduce policies to allow fathers to help working mothers– A female leader working in a tech company shared that flexible working hours for the fathers can also allow the fathers to contribute to more share of work at home – and this might lessen the burden of the working mothers



In the article ‘3 Ways Companies Can Retain Working Moms Right Now,’ by Harvard Business Review, the employers are urged to alleviate the stress by communicating clearly with the employees. And set clear job expectations and performance standard. The managers are also asked to implement parent friendly policies- such as shorter workday or more cramped work-week, so that the working mothers have more free time off their work- which, in turn, can save them from burnout. 

“Talk to them. See if they need any help. Ask them how they are feeling,” the authors Dana Sumpter and Mona Zanhour penned. Continuing to show compassion and empathy in these trying times will show that the employers actually care for the working mothers. This is also said to increase the loyalty of these employees towards their organizations.

Yvonne Garcia, CEO and Chief of Staff of ‘Small Business Strong’ urged, “Providing coaching and career pathways to working parents will be critical to hold more qualified working mothers in their organizations.” 

Facebook’s CFO Sheryl Sandberg warned that the quitting of working mothers from the workplace due to the penalty and pandemic could erase years of progression of women. Now if the organizations and its leaders become proactive to lessen the pay gap and improve the policies for working mothers to ensure gender equality at all levels of the organization, it will be easier to tackle the pressing issue of motherhood penalty at a time of crisis.


By Anika Tahsin Lisa



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