The Motherhood Penalty

Because of old workplace paradigms, becoming a mother can take a toll on a woman’s earnings and jeopardize her family's economic security.

Why It Matters

The Impact of Parenthood

Women comprise almost half of the U.S. labor force, and many of those women are mothers: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 71% of mothers with children at home are working. And the Center for American Progress reports that women are the sole or primary breadwinner in 41% of American households with children. Nonetheless, women’s earnings — as well as their earning potential — often take a major hit when they become moms.

Research has shown that hiring managers are less likely to hire mothers compared women who don’t have kids, and when employers do make an offer to a mother, they offer her a lower salary than they do other women. Men, by contrast, do not suffer a penalty when they become dads. In fact, there’s some evidence of a “fatherhood bonus” in which their earnings actually increase.

Though childbearing has economic benefits for our society, women are financially penalized for having children. A study by Census Bureau researchers found that between two years before the birth of a couple’s first child and a year after, the earnings gap between opposite-sex spouses doubles. The gap continues to grow until that child reaches age 10. Though it narrows after that, it never disappears completely. This is referred to as the “Motherhood Penalty.”

Motherhood Penalty [ muhth-er-hoo d pen-al-ty ]


  1. The phenomenon by which women’s pay decreases once they become mothers.

Due to the Motherhood Penalty, on average, mothers make 63 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. Even full-time employed mothers make 71 cents for every dollar made by a father.


Part of the explanation for this is the fact that women remain more likely than men to take time away from the workforce or to reduce their work hours because of caregiving responsibilities. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy research, 43% of women workers had at least one year with no earnings, nearly twice the rate of men.

Most employers still don’t offer necessary benefits such as paid parental leave, caregiving leave or flexible work schedules that could make it easier for working spouses to share domestic responsibilities and to blend their work and family life. Rather, the workplace still adheres to an outdated model that prioritizes long, continuous, traditional work hours — a fact that puts women at a disadvantage.

The unreasonably high cost of  childcare also pushes many women out of the workforce, particularly low-wage women whose earnings would barely offset the bill for day care or a babysitter.   

Old stereotypes about fathers as primary breadwinners and mothers as primary caregivers persist, presenting barrier to women in their childbearing years. Despite federal protections, pregnant women still face discrimination in the workplace. And many working mothers are shut out of leadership roles because some employers assume that women’s caregiving commitments make them inappropriate candidates for demanding jobs.

Unfortunately, many of our workplaces still operate on an outdated model that assumes one parent is the primary breadwinner and the other the primary caretaker. But few American families adhere to this 1950s-style set up. So it’s essential for employers to update their policies and practices to accommodate the reality of today’s moms and dads. Doing so will eliminate the motherhood penalty — and bring us another step closer to economic equity for all.

Faces of AAUW

Why Equal Pay Matters

Having been a 20-year-old single mom, I know how it feels to be poor and freaked out. You don’t know how you’re going to buy diapers or even feed your child. Every dollar that you bring in makes a difference. The situation wouldn’t be as difficult if women were paid what they are worth. They earn that money, and it shouldn’t be held back from them.

The dome of Capitol Building, Washington DC, and the American flag against a blue sky.
Policy Center

Policy Recommendation: Paid Leave

Unlike the majority of developed countries worldwide, the United States does not guarantee paid annual leave, paid time off for illness or family care, or paid parental leave. Without these policies, balancing the responsibilities of work and family can be difficult — especially for mothers.

Take Action

There are lots of ways to get involved with AAUW’s work to advance gender equity. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of women and girls.