How Working Moms are Affected by the Gender Pay Gap

By Published On: March 14th, 2023

March 14 was is Equal Pay Day—but some argue the wage gap has less to do with gender, and more to do with motherhood.

If you identify as a woman and you’ve ever been employed, you are probably all too aware of the gender pay gap—and it’s likely you are or have been a victim of it yourself, whether you know it or not. In fact, if you’re a mother, you’ve almost certainly been affected not only by the wage gap but also by the “motherhood penalty,” which widens the gap all the more for women who opt to have a family.  

Every year, we observe Equal Pay Day, which falls on March 14 this year, to advocate for working women and to remind us that there is still a lot of progress to be made when it comes to a woman’s right to fair wages. Data from the United States Census indicates that, on average, full-time working women bring home around $.82 for every $1 their male counterparts make. This number is reduced to $.77 when you factor in all part-time and seasonally employed women. Still, despite all of our efforts to establish gender equity in the workplace, a new analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that the gender wage gap hasn’t changed much over the last 20 years. 

If you dig deeper, you’ll find some very interesting (and infuriating) details. The $.82 figure is just an average, and for a lot of women, that number is a major boost from what they’re actually earning. For instance, the difference in salary grows as a woman progresses in her career. Black women make $.63 and Latina women make $.58 of every $1 a white man makes, and self-employed women bring home around $.69 of every $1 self-employed men do. Then, of course, there are working moms—and the “motherhood penalty” that makes up as much as 80% of the gap

What Is the Motherhood Penalty? 

The World Economic Forum defines the “motherhood penalty” as “the systematic disadvantage that women encounter in the workplace when they become mothers, in terms of pay, perceived competence, and benefits compared to other workers.” Basically, women who want to be mothers and have a career will often find themselves falling behind men professionally. And it’s not just men in general, either, there’s also a divide between mothers and fathers in terms of workplace success.

According to the American Association of University Women, on average, full-time working moms make 74% of what full-time working dads make (this drops to 62% when you include part-time and seasonal workers). One excuse for this figure is a difference in years of professional experience, which seems like a legitimate reason for a variance in pay, however, in the context of motherhood, those years of experience lost are often the result of being pressured (or forced) out of work for caregiving and other unpaid work. Similarly, mothers are often passed over for advancements and pushed to reduce their schedule to part-time because they often bear the responsibilities of unpaid childcare, requiring them to miss work for things like their child’s doctor appointments or school and daycare closures.  

A study published in The American Journal of Sociology found a significant difference in how mothers are perceived and treated as job candidates as well as employees in the workplace. For example, mothers were considered to be 12% less committed to their jobs than non-mothers, whereas fathers were considered to be 5% more committed than non-fathers. The study also found that mothers are held to a higher punctuality standard than fathers, as dads were given more grace for showing up late to work than moms before no longer being recommended for hire. Finally, mothers were offered an even lower starting salary compared to non-mothers (whose salaries were already about 9% lower than starting salaries for fathers), but fathers were offered a significantly higher starting salary than childless men (sometimes referred to as the “fatherhood bonus”). 

Long-Term Impacts of the Gender Pay Gap and the Motherhood Penalty

In terms of general career progression, the motherhood penalty can have a tremendous effect. Working mothers are more likely to be overlooked for new jobs and promotions, which further contributes to the disproportionate number of men in leadership positions compared to women.  

The combined effects of the gender pay gap and the motherhood penalty create a major financial disadvantage for moms. One study found that mothers who took one year off over the course of 15 years in the workplace earned 39% less than women who worked all 15 years continuously. 

In a single year, a working mother in the U.S. makes an average of $18,000 less than a working father, which comes out to $720,000 over the course of a 40-year career. Nearly three-quarters of a million dollars less—simply because she is a mom. 

Women, regardless of whether or not they are mothers, deserve to be fairly compensated for their work. In fact, the skills a mom can bring into the workplace, such as empathy, multi-tasking, productivity, collaboration, and efficiency, are essential to a growing and thriving organization.  There is no reason why a company should pay a man more for a job than it would a woman with the same credentials (besides discrimination, of course).

In a recent effort to level the playing field, some states and several jurisdictions have introduced pay transparency laws requiring employers to disclose wages (or wage ranges) to prospective job candidates and current employees. While this is a step in the right direction, this is not even close to where the fight ends.

This Equal Pay Day, advocate for the women in your life by sharing these statistics, asking your representatives to support fair compensation legislation, and organizing with co-workers to request equitable pay policies in the workplace.