Normative Discrimination and the Motherhood Penalty

Highly successful mothers tend to be discriminated against in hiring and promoting decisions because they are viewed as less warm, less likeable and more interpersonally hostile.


In almost all industrialized countries, mothers fare worse in the labor markets than women without children, let alone men. The so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ has been broadly documented and is usually associated with mothers being perceived as less competent and committed to their jobs. This study adds value to the body of existing research by controlling for job candidates’ competence and commitment levels. The authors found that even if mothers were unambiguously committed and competent, they were still discriminated against, as they were perceived as less warm and less likable.


This experimental study demonstrated that the motherhood penalty in hiring decisions persisted even when women with children proved to be unambiguously committed and competent in their previous jobs. In particular, female study participants discriminated against highly successful mothers by regarding them as less warm, less likeable and more interpersonally hostile:

  • In a behavioral experiment with 260 undergraduate students, female study participants rated successful mothers as significantly less likeable and less committed compared to otherwise identical fathers. Highly successful fathers were thus seen as having more positive interpersonal skills than mothers.
  • Female participants also held successful mothers to higher standards than both nonmothers and fathers, and penalized them on recommendations for promotion, hire, and salary. Mothers were offered a salary that was , on average, $7000 less than the salary offered to childless women. On the contrary, fathers were offered a salary that was, on average, $6,000 higher than the recommended compensation for men without children.
  • Surprisingly, male study participants generally did not penalize mothers although they showed a marginally significant tendency to discriminate against fathers.

From a policy perspective, this study provides useful insights in the underlying dynamics of the ‘motherhood penalty’ in hiring and promotion contexts. Women with children seem to face a ‘double-bind’: either they are perceived warm and likeable, but not competent and committed enough, or, even if they unambiguously show competence and commitment, they are penalized for breaking with traditional gender stereotypes as they are perceived as less warm and more interpersonally hostile.


The authors used an experimental set-up to test their hypothesis that mothers are discriminated against in the job market, even if competence and commitment levels are controlled for. They randomly assigned 260 undergraduate students (105 men, 154 women, and one not specified) to different groups. Each participant was given an hour to read and review two sets of job applications for a male and a female candidate applying to a mid-level management position. The candidates’ profiles were more or less equivalent, except for their family status (with or without children), their gender (male or female), and information on their performance on previous jobs (unambiguously good or ambiguously good). After the reading period, participants answered questionnaires judging the candidates’ commitment and competence level as well as their interpersonal skills. Finally, participants had to decide whether the firm should hire the candidates and were asked to recommend a salary.

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