Happy Mother’s Day. We’ll Adjust Your Wages Accordingly.

by | May 7, 2016
filed under Feminism


There’s an aspect of the pay equity debate that’s seldom discussed: there’s a larger gap in pay between women who have children and women who don’t than there is between women without children and men.

It’s called the motherhood penalty: statistics show that a woman’s income decreases by about six to nine per cent per child. In fact, it’s working mothers who make up the majority of the pay wage gap, and for single mothers, the gap becomes even wider. (Men on the other hand, typically enjoy a fatherhood bonus when they choose to start a family, getting a 6 to 12 per cent bump in pay.)

Not only do a woman’s reproductive choices influence her earnings – a new study indicates that her age at the birth of her first child plays a significant role in how much of her wages she’ll lose to the motherhood penalty, with a clear lower lifetime income for women who have children before age 25.

It’s generally accepted wisdom that mothers earn less because they deliberately choose lower-paying jobs with more flexible hours and fewer opportunities for promotion, in order to better accommodate child care duties. There is evidence that these factors explain at least part of the gap.

But that doesn’t account for research showing that women who have children are called back less often for interviews, are rated less competent and less committed than women without children by evaluators before hire, and when hired are offered lower starting wages than non-mothers. These factors point to a form of discrimination at play, likely a cultural assumption that once a woman has children she is no longer committed to her career.

It’s easy to imagine how a bias in hiring mothers would continue to impact a woman’s career track even past the point of hire. In a society which increasingly expects ever more intensive mothering from women, it’s all too easy to assume – without ever asking – that a woman with children is too preoccupied with maternal duties to be interested in that upcoming department position, the one with less flexible hours, but substantially better pay.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to start a family, and human rights legislation across Canada prohibits discrimination based on family status, but the persistence of the motherhood penalty suggests that women still face discrimination in the workplace for choosing to have children.

On Mother’s Day this Sunday, give mothers the gift of resolving not to assume that a woman who has children is any less capable or any less committed to her career because of her reproductive choices.

Photo by Clever Cupcakes from Montreal, Canada (Mother’s Day Cupcakes) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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