Thanks to the gender pay gap, women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to a 2022 PayScale report. The gap is even wider for working mothers, who earn 26% less than male parents. Numbers like these illustrate a trend known simply as the motherhood penalty—and it can majorly impact a woman's lifetime earnings.
Flipping this paradigm won't happen overnight, but that doesn't mean women can't take steps to move things in the right direction. Here are five ways to counteract the motherhood penalty and encourage employers to pay working moms what they're worth.
What Is the Motherhood Penalty?
The motherhood penalty refers to the fact that working mothers are often paid less than working fathers. One research paper released by the Center for Economic Studies underscores the potential long-term effects for women. When researchers looked at the time period beginning two years before the birth of a first child and one year after, they found that the earnings gap between opposite-sex spouses doubled—and continued to grow for another five years. This gap improved over time but never fully closed.
The motherhood penalty can have a ripple effect that significantly stunts a woman's long-term earnings. On top of the gender pay gap and gender investing gap, two out of every three caregivers in the U.S. are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As a result, women may be more likely than men to pull back from their careers after having children.
Child care costs are also steep. In 2021, the average cost for one child at a child care center or daycare center was $226 per week, according to Care.com. That can be a huge expense, especially for women whose earnings already lag behind men. Some may decide that it makes more financial sense to become a stay-at-home parent.
On a more empowering note, women can take steps to push back against the motherhood penalty. Learning to be your own advocate is the most important piece.
1. Ask for a Raise
A little salary research can go a long way. Sites like Salary.com and Glassdoor can shed light on the average compensation for your job—and you may find that you're currently being underpaid. If that's the case, calling a meeting with your HR department or manager may be in order. You can then decide whether you want to negotiate a pay raise or look for a competing offer.
If seeking a raise, it's wise to come prepared with concrete examples of the good work you've done for the company so far. The idea is to prove your worth. Talking about compensation with other employees may feel taboo in some circles, but if you get wind that a colleague is getting paid more for similar work, calling out that inequality could work in your favor.
2. Look for a New Role
If your current employer is unwilling to pay you what you're worth, you might choose to look for a new job. Researching your local salary disclosure laws is a good place to start. For example, some ban employers from asking about your salary history. Others require that employers reveal their salary range if the interviewee asks.
No matter what, know that your current salary doesn't have to be the jumping-off point during new negotiations. You might also consider tapping your professional network to get a feel for what people in your position are being paid elsewhere.
3. Seek a Mentor
Working mothers have unique challenges, especially where their earnings are concerned. Connecting with a mentor who's been in your shoes—and risen above the challenges—can be an invaluable resource.
When you look around your company or your professional network, is there anyone who stands out? They don't necessarily have to be in your industry, though that can be helpful. Don't be afraid to reach out and offer to buy them a cup of coffee and pick their brain. Getting plugged into a local working women's organization or industry-specific women's group might also serve you well.
4. Sharpen Your Skills
If you had to scale back at work after starting a family, that may have affected your ability to grow in your career. Perhaps you've been in the same type of role for some time and haven't been promoted to a more senior position. Finding ways to fine-tune your skills can help boost your credibility. That may include:
- Attending professional development courses
- Taking outside workshops and courses that are relevant to your career
- Asking your manager for opportunities to grow in your role and learn more
- Connecting with a career coach who can help you map out new goals
5. If You Do Step Away From Work, Keep One Foot in Your Industry
After having a baby, becoming a stay-at-home parent may feel like the best decision for you and your family. If you hope to eventually go back to work when your children are older, consider keeping one foot in your industry. It can help keep your network fresh and prevent you from having a large gap on your resume later on—two things that may come in handy when you're eventually looking for a job. Some ideas include:
- Acting as a freelancer or consultant and taking gigs on your own schedule
- Attending industry events and networking opportunities
- Staying socially connected to old coworkers and colleagues who could tip you off to job opportunities in the future
- Maintaining relevant professional certifications
The Bottom Line
Working mothers may feel like the deck is stacked against them. It very well might be, but understanding how the motherhood penalty works is the first step to overcoming it. Gender equality in the workplace begins with advocating for yourself and paving the way for working moms who come after you.
That includes keeping your overall financial health in tip-top shape. Experian can help on that front by providing working mothers with the credit resources they need to thrive. That includes the ability to check your credit score and credit report for free.