Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?

Mothers face penalties in hiring, starting salaries, and perceived competence while fathers can benefit from being a parent.


Mothers in the workforce experience additional disadvantage compared to women who are not mothers, including a per-child wage penalty. The “motherhood penalty” may account for a significant proportion of the gender gap in pay, as the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers could in fact be larger than the pay gap between men and women. Mothers also face additional disadvantages compared to childless women and men. Some studies show that visibly pregnant women are judged as being less committed to their jobs, less dependable, less authoritative, more emotional, and more irrational than otherwise equal, non-pregnant female managers. Previous studies have found it difficult to distinguish between whether actual differences in productivity between mothers and non-mothers are behind the motherhood penalty, or whether it is rooted in discrimination. This paper tests if there is a motherhood penalty on wages and performance evaluations by using two studies: a laboratory experiment with student participants and an audit study of actual employers.


Mothers suffer a penalty relative to non-mothers and men in the form of lower perceived competence and commitment, higher professional expectations, lower likelihood of hiring and promotion, and lower recommended salaries. This evidence implies that being a mother leads to discrimination in the workplace.

  • For women, competency ratings were 10% lower for mothers compared to non-mothers among otherwise equal candidates.
  • Mothers were considered to be 12.1 percentage points less committed to their jobs than non-mothers while fathers were perceived as being 5 percentage points more committed than non-fathers. Compared to childless men, mothers were rated 6.4 percentage points lower with regard to commitment than childless men.
  • Mothers were 6 times less likely than childless women and 3.35 times less likely than childless men to be recommended for hire. Similarly, mothers are also disadvantaged when it comes to promotions. Childless women are 8.2 times more likely to be recommended for a promotion than mothers. In the audit study conducted with real employers, childless women still have an advantage. They receive 2.1 times as many callbacks as equally qualified mothers.
  • Mothers were also held to higher punctuality standards than non-mothers. On average, mothers were allowed to be late 3.16 days per month before no longer being recommended for hire, while childless women were allowed to be late on 3.73 days. Conversely, fathers were allowed to have more days late than non-fathers: 3.6 days per month compared to 3.16 days.
  • Mothers were recommended a 7.9% lower starting salary than non-mothers ($139,000 compared to $151,000, respectively), which is 8.6% lower than the recommended starting salary for fathers. Among men, the trend is reversed, and fathers were offered a significantly higher starting salary than childless men ($152,000 compared to $148,000, respectively).

Participants were asked to rate a pair of fictitious applicants that were equally qualified, were of the same race and gender, and only differed by parental status. They were then asked to complete a survey and an evaluation sheet. The two candidates were constructed to appear as equally productive in previous jobs and had been tested to be perceived as equally qualified. Eight outcome variables were measured: two on competence and commitment, two on ability standard, and four on evaluation standards (recommended salary, recommendation for management, likelihood of promotion and recommendation for hire). Multivariate regression analysis was then conducted to adjust for demographic differences among the study participants.

An audit study was also used to provide external validity by evaluating whether actual employers discriminate against mothers. Researchers sent out resumes and cover letters from a pair of fictitious, equally qualified applications that were either both female or both male to employers in response to real job openings. The same-sex pairs contained one parent and one non-parent, and the employer’s callback rate based on gender and parental status were recorded. This audit study was incorporated into the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) enforcement guide that it issued to employers to help them avoid discrimination against mothers and other caregivers.

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