Cultures, Social Institution

Motherhood as a Status Characteristic and the Maternal Economic Penalty

maternal penalty

The motherhood penalty is a phrase coined by sociologists to describe the economic costs for women who become mothers. Research shows that the economic maternal penalty amounts to a 5% decrease in wages per child. Professional women who are mothers make an average of $11,000 per year less than women who do not have children. Men’s wages, in contrast either remain the same or increase when they become fathers. Despite the fact that an increasing number of women are the sole financial support of their children, society has not yet adapted to this reality, and men are still considered to be the primary family wage earners.

In addition to lower wages, women also face the maternal penalty of being viewed as less dependable despite the fact that the very survival of their children is dependent upon their dependability. Equally ironic, they are also viewed as less committed to their jobs because of their commitment to their children. Finally, although motherhood entails setting limits for children as well as disciplining them, mothers are also viewed as less authoritative than women without children. One article points to several studies that demonstrated that mothers were more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace.

Studies have also shown that women face this type of maternal penalty in a number of industrialized nations which include the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Poland and Japan. Sociologists have studied a number of strategies that could be used to address wage inequality and have determined that the best strategy is one in which women aren’t expected to choose between motherhood and a well-paying career.

Reasons for the Maternal Penalty

There are several theories that attempt to explain the reasons for these gender disparities. One of them is the theory that mothers may be less productive at work because they have more responsibilities at home. Another theory is that performance evaluations are biased in favor of high-status groups. According to this theory, motherhood is a “status characteristic”. Experiments confirm that status characteristics, which often include race, educational level, gender and physical appearance are systematically used to determine levels of competence and influence.

The maternal penalty is a form of discrimination that results from stereotyping, or cultural beliefs about the differences between men and women and their proper social roles. Women who break the stereotype are less well liked. For example, if the culture believes that good mothers stay at home with their children, and good workers place their companies first in their priorities, logic dictates that working mothers must be less than ideal both as mothers and as workers. In social experiments, evaluators rated highly successful women who were mothers as less likable and warm and more hostile.

Another theory is that mothers value time with their children more than higher wages, and therefore often accept part-time positions with low pay and more flexibility. In a survey, 50% of mothers working full-time indicated that they’re rather work part-time and 80% of mothers working part-time preferred part-time work. However, the negative impact of low wages in full-time work is not offset by flexible work hours, paid sick leave, or maternity leave.
Many don’t view the economic consequences of motherhood as an unfair penalty because motherhood is a choice. Because a woman can choose not to become a mother, they view mothers as responsible for their own poverty. In one experiment, participants exposed to dialogue about choice before answering questions regarding working mothers tended to discriminate against working mothers more strongly in matters of hiring and salary.

Strategies for Ending the Maternal Penalty

One recommended strategy is the development and implementation of parental leave policies, rather than maternity leave policies. Many feel that offering only maternity leave encourages the continued belief that raising children is primarily women’s responsibility. Breast-feeding is only one of many parental responsibilities and many working mothers utilize breast pumps to provide their babies with its benefits.

Family leave policies can benefit companies in a number of ways. One of those ways is saving money on training new employees. New parents returning to work after time spent bonding with their infants do so with much less emotional conflict, which results in higher productivity as well as increased job satisfaction. While sociologists focus on economic penalties, for women, the consequences of child-bearing are not just economic, but social, mental and physical as well.

As long as a person’s value being determined by their worth as human capital rather than their meaningful contribution to humanity continues, the devaluation of child care is apt to continue as well. Ironically, there is no group of people better situated to change societal stereotypes and end the maternal penalty than mothers themselves. As every working mother expected to excel in multiple arenas can attest, women are adept at multi-tasking. When united in advocating for a better quality of life for their children, they have proven to be unstoppable.

maternal penalty
Woman working in a Factory 1940s by Howard R. Hollem – US Library of Congress’s, under the digital ID fsac.1a34951
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