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Intersectionality in Depth, Part 3: The Motherhood Penalty

A mother and daughter look at the camera.

Intersectionality, a concept coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, shows how different aspects of a person’s identity can overlap and create unique challenges for individuals facing various forms of inequities and/or discrimination. As the Principal Strategist for the Women’s Employment Portfolio, and in parallel with Women’s History Month, it is my pleasure to present this three-part blog series that also features blogs on the intersectionality of women and faith, motherhood, and geographic location highlighting how these connections may influence a woman’s experience.

The Motherhood Penalty

The term motherhood penalty refers to the economic and career penalties that women, particularly mothers, may face in the workforce due to societal and workplace expectations around caregiving responsibilities. The concept highlights the challenges and disadvantages that women may experience in their careers when raising children. Understanding and addressing these key aspects of the motherhood penalty is essential to fostering a more equitable and supportive workplace environment for all women.

A Glimpse into the Challenges

Key aspects of the motherhood penalty:

  • Career Interruptions – Women often face interruptions in their careers when they take time off to care for children. Career breaks, even if temporary, can result in a loss of work experience, networking opportunities, and skill building.
  • Diminished Earning Potential – The motherhood penalty can lead to diminished earning potential over time. Career interruptions and part-time work can often contribute to a wage gap between mothers and women without children, as well as between mothers and fathers.
  • Limited Career Advancement – Mothers may experience slower career advancement compared to their male counterparts or women without children. Biases and stereotypes around a mother’s commitment to work and productivity may affect promotion opportunities. These biases are known as the maternal wall.
  • Occupational Segregation – Some women may find themselves pushed into certain occupations or industries that could be seen as more accommodating to family responsibilities but may offer lower wages and/or fewer opportunities for career growth.
  • Emotional Toll – Balancing work and family responsibilities can take a heavy emotional toll on mothers. The pressure to meet both professional and caregiving expectations can lead to stress, burnout, and feelings of guilt.

Supporting the Needs of Mothers

The motherhood penalty highlights the need for policy changes to support working mothers. These changes could include implementation of family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules, telecommuting options, and more extensive paid leave. Offering tailored resources for returning mothers, such work-subsidized childcare programs, an overview of the office’s policies regarding pumping and private lactation rooms, and helplines can also be helpful for new parents.

Additionally, employees can play a part in helping support their colleagues by:

  • Championing policies that women, including mothers, have equal opportunities for professional development, promotions, and career advancement.
  • Advocating for office-wide training on recognizing and addressing biases related to motherhood.
  • Promoting work-life balance and leading by example.
  • Mentoring women, specifically addressing potential gaps in career progression that may result from caregiving responsibilities.

Several resources are available at NIH to help parents and caregivers, including but not limited to parental leave, child and family programs, work schedule flexibilities, and the Employee Assistance Program. You may also join one of NIH’s Employee Resource Groups that can provide a supportive network for women.

Legal Protections

Combating the motherhood penalty is not just a matter of fairness; it is the law. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. In June 2023, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) went into effect. The PWFA requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to the known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, and/or related medical conditions associated with pregnancy, absent undue hardship. We must follow the laws by creating workplaces that empower all individuals to thrive with an equity-based approach to their caregiving responsibilities. In doing so, we contribute to a future where mothers can pursue both fulfilling careers and meaningful family lives without bearing an undue economic or professional burden.

For more information, contact the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, or the NIH Civil Program if you feel discrimination or harassment has occurred.

To read my other blogs please visit Women in Rural Landscapes and Women of Faith.

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