The cost of choosing motherhood

by Tamar Kricheli Katz on 02/24/11 at 9:38 am

Source: iStockPhotos/danleap

Motherhood costs working women about a five percent per child wage penalty. This “motherhood penalty” in the American job market is well documented. Not only do mothers earn less than similarly-qualified women without children, but they also face discrimination in hiring and promotion.

What is less clear is under what circumstances mothers face these kinds of penalties in the first place. Could part of the explanation be connected to the belief that motherhood is a choice women make? Could perceptions about the optionality of motherhood impact the way people treat women in the workplace?

In general, we feel differently toward people depending on whether we perceive the things that happen to them as being outside of their control. For example, people usually feel sympathy for someone who loses their home because of a wildfire. Many people would feel less sympathetic for someone who lost a home because of gambling debts, and they may even judge that person negatively.

Because perceptions about “controllability” often influence how we think about, judge, or treat other people, I wondered if a similar dynamic could be at play when it comes to motherhood and work. Researchers have already demonstrated that employers perceive mothers to be less productive and less committed to their jobs compared to childless women. I wondered if employers’ perception of motherhood as a choice would affect the penalty mothers face

My dissertation, “Choice-Based Discrimination,” focuses on answering these questions.

To test my hypothesis about the relationship between the motherhood wage penalty and perceptions of choice, I analyzed data from the 1988-2004 Current Population Survey. I mapped the percentages of childless women, pro-choice abortion policies and attitudes, and numbers of abortions per capita by state to measure the relative perception of motherhood as a choice in each state. I found that the motherhood wage penalty tends to be higher in states with stronger indicators of motherhood as a choice.

These findings imply that perceptions of choice and controllability result in discrimination. When employers perceive that women have chosen to become mothers, they view mothers as responsible for their condition and treat them negatively. When employers do not perceive mothers as having made a choice, they penalize mothers less.

I also conducted a hiring experiment that further explored the relationship between perceptions of motherhood as a choice and on-the-job discrimination. First, I led some participants in the experiment to agree with the argument that motherhood was a choice women make, and I led others to agree with the argument that motherhood was not a ‘real’ choice for women. Later, I asked the participants to make hiring decisions and salary recommendations for two fictitious, equally-qualified female job applicants, one of whom was a mother and one of whom was childless.

My findings confirmed the census data. Participants who perceived motherhood as a choice tended to discriminate more against mothers in terms of hiring and salary recommendations. Both census data and the experiment show that perceptions about controllability of motherhood lead to a steeper penalty, or higher cost, for working mothers. By showing this connection, I hope to help mitigate the impact on working mothers, particularly if this penalty causes women to face a costly choice between career and family.

Understanding choice-based discrimination can also prevent paradoxical and undesired effects at the policy level. If policymakers believe that mothers choose to become mothers, they may focus fewer policies targeted at eliminating inequalities for mothers. Motherhood as a choice may help to explain, in part, why the US remains one of the few industrialized nations that does not offer paid maternity leave or childcare subsidies.

Finally, my findings have implications that go beyond the treatment of mothers. After all, additional traits, such as homosexuality and obesity, are also perceived by many to be controllable. Like motherhood, these traits often evoke negative emotions and moral judgment, resulting in workplace discrimination.


Tamar Kricheli-Katz is a Graduate Dissertation Fellow at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, a doctoral candidate in the Stanford University Department of Sociology, and a JSD candidate at Stanford Law School.

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20 Responses to “The cost of choosing motherhood”

  1. LQ

    Feb 24th, 2011

    I’m slightly confused by this — I’m totally in favor of childcare subsidies and maternity (AND PATERNITY) leave, but isn’t parenthood usually (and ideally) a choice? Or is the ultimate point that while it’s usually a choice, it isn’t always, and that we shouldn’t care? (not to mention that we’re culturally supposed to reward the responsibility of accepting parenthood regardless of how it happened…) That makes sense, but probably need to be laid bare for people to really grasp it.

  2. Baerana

    Feb 25th, 2011

    I don’t understand how on earth motherhood ISN’T a choice – not that mothers should be financially or otherwise be penalized for it – but it’s ALWAYS a choice, whether you are pro-choice or not, you have a choice to become a mother or not

    And it’s not just mothers who are punished for that choice – all women are – still paid less and hired less often – w/ the thoughts that “it’s expensive to train them and then have them run off and have a baby and quit, or take months off for maternity leave” even if they have no intention of ever becoming a mother. I’ve wanted to put “childfree and sterile” on my resume for years…

    homosexuality shouldn’t matter when determining salary, of course, but an employer may (wrongly, and it would be discrimination) say a mother may deserve less because she’ll spend fewer hours in the office, needing to be w/ her kids. And an obese person may deserve less because they’ll be sick more and thus also be less productive. Again, that’s discrimination, and wrong, but it would be something that would need to be addressed. Of course, there would also need to be fairness in work contracts that mothers, or parents in general, AREN’T actually working fewer hours than the rest of us, or getting preferred schedules, holidays off, etc. yet making the same salary.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by womenspeakpro, Yancey Thomas. Yancey Thomas said: The cost of choosing motherhood | Gender News [...]

  4. Poochie

    Feb 25th, 2011

    How is motherhood not a choice? Unless people are mandated to do so, it can only be a choice.

  5. JB

    Feb 25th, 2011

    How is becoming a mother NOT a choice??

  6. Judith Pearson

    Feb 25th, 2011

    Not only can motherhood affect wages, it can determine whether you get the job or not. I applied for a position in public school administration and was asked how many children I had. I replied two and was then asked if I intended to have any more! I replied that I did not know – I did not get the job! This was only one small example of the kinds of attitudes I ran into trying to break into a profession typically held by men – at that time. I published PLAINTIFF BLUES in 2007 to describe 17 years as a plaintiff in two federal lawsuits on job discrimination and retaliation. Even when I won, it was a grueling experience. I also blog on to continue the discussion on these and other social justice issues.

  7. ksha

    Feb 25th, 2011

    mother is a choice! and women should not be penalised for making that choice by employers or any other! i don’t agree that women who have children are less committed to their jobs if anything they are a driving force to be reckoned with!

  8. Lorna Hamilton

    Feb 28th, 2011

    The problem with maternity laws is that they are ‘positive discrimination’ and positive discrimination is STILL discrimination. Indeed, there is no such thing as ‘positive’ discrimation, all you are diong is moving the discrimination from one person to another.

    Now employers cannot ask women if they want children so ALL women of a certain age and with a partner are discriminated against when it comes to recruitment. At least when you have a child you have made that choice, but I cannot choose to remain in my early 20s and I shouldn’t have to give up on having a partner just to have a better prospect of getting a job.

    As for work, only the work that is done should ever be paid for. Businesses should not be responsible for the choices their staff members make. Promotions should be decided purely on who is reliable, who is most capable and the number of days someone has worked.

  9. AP

    Mar 1st, 2011

    Marketplace on NPR Monday 2/28 had a segment on mothers as an underemployed and valuable section of the wokforce. The speaker was encouraging employers to develop flexible schedule positions to take advantage of this highly educated, driven and talented population.

  10. mcb

    Mar 1st, 2011

    The problem with the study is that there isn’t any exogenous variation in attitudes, it could be that in states with more stringent abortion laws will also have differing attitudes towards hiring women with children or differing attitudes towards discrimination or female productivity.

    Just because you find a correlation, doesn’t mean you can causally infer it is from “choice attitudes”. The laboratory study doesn’t help either; Of course a manipulation shedding positive or negative light on pregnancy will yield different results. You could get the same results manipulating their beliefs about productivity, discrimination, or a myriad of other factors.

  11. M

    Mar 1st, 2011

    Of course it IS a choice! What kind of insane idea is it that it is NOT a choice? Did I miss a hidden point here?

  12. Nadine

    Mar 1st, 2011

    Men do not face this issue because they are not viewed as primary caregivers. Therefore they face no direct penalty in hiring and promotions.

  13. Ellen Smith

    Mar 1st, 2011

    Very interesting. So while the men in Congress continue to take away the woman’s right to choose, (no funded abortions and no money to “Planned Parenthood”), they also penalize them in the job market.

  14. Christopher Nantista

    Mar 1st, 2011

    Motherhood is the natural vocation of most women, unless they choose a celibate lifestyle (e.g. to follow a religious vocation or other situation precluding family). Taking a “partner”, within or without the socially responsible framework of marriage, with whom to engage in physiological activity naturally ordered toward procreation constitutes an implicit acceptance of this vocation and of one’s responsibility for the propagation of the species. Wisely choosing a partner who can provide sufficient support and binding him to through marriage renders moot the issue of any potential “penalty” in wage earning.
    Raising children can itself be a full time job, and a mother shouldn’t be expected to maintain a full outside job. Employee benefits such as spousal healthcare coverage and laws such as alimony take this into account (which is why non-complementary pairings, not ordered toward procreation, should not be treated as equivalent). Paying maternity leave and other benefits to career women punishes women who choose to be full-time housewives/mothers. Why should society give more to families with dual incomes while neglecting those who choose the traditional paradigm and sacrifice to get by on one? It would make more sense to benefit the latter, in recognition both of their greater need and of the benefit of their choice to their children and society. This penalization represents true, ideologically driven discrimination against women.

  15. Kathy

    Mar 1st, 2011

    I’m assuming that motherhood not being a choice refers to the perception that you don’t choose when you become a mother, if you’re not on birth control. And sometimes even when you are on birth control. Becoming a mother due to birth control failure – not a choice. Becoming a mother due to rape – not a choice. Some people may see a couple having unprotected sex as them choosing to become parents – others may see it as a natural thing, and whether you become a parent or not is not your choice. It essentially is a coincidence. You happen to have had sex while ovulating, and the conditions happened to be just right for fertilization, and later the conditions happened to be perfect for implantation and development. It’s difficult to control these events, and thus, motherhood can be viewed as a miracle/surprise/coincidence rather than a choice.

  16. A

    Mar 3rd, 2011

    For most, motherhood is a choice (those exceptions previously cited notwithstanding). From an employer point of view, the question is this: Job X requires a certain level of productivity, and how likely is this person going to be able to perform to the level required? It has nothing to do with whether the person is a parent or not. If they do the work, they get the reward. If they have to constantly take time off to take care of a child, and that interferes with their productivity, then they are an inappropriate hire for a position. If they’re productive, then they get rewarded just like anyone else. I’m not sure how relevant this experiment is to an actual workplace.

  17. Georgia J

    Mar 5th, 2011

    I think a basic fact that many here seem to be forgetting is that motherhood is necessary in order for the continuation of our species, and further, that discrimination against mothers in the workplace is encouraging the most driven and intelligent female members of our society to avoid having children.
    It’s discrimination to assume that a mother will need to “take time off to take care of her children” or other nonsense. We don’t impose this archaic attitude upon fathers who are employed (although we do discriminate against fathers that choose to take the paternity leave that they are entitled to).
    We should look to countries such as Sweden for a model for maternity leave and paternity leave. We must acknowledge that motherhood and fatherhood are necessary and beneficial pursuits that may in fact serve to solidify employee loyalty and work ethic.

  18. Isabella

    Mar 5th, 2011

    In response to A, yes, a person should be rewarded based on their productivity, but I think the article is referring to cases where the starting pay for two equally qualified women is different depending on whether or not they have children. That is discrimination. If an employer finds that a mother is not adequately productive (because of constant time off, etc.), s/he always has the ability to lower the mother’s pay/fire her/not promote her. However, assuming at the beginning of employment that a mother will be less devoted/capable/productive than any other woman (or person in general, but that’s another issue) is discrimination, and therefore wrong. Not all mothers are created equal. For example, a mother with two teenage children is probably going to have more time to devote to work than one with toddlers. You can’t assume she won’t be productive until she actually begins working for that company.

  19. Anjali

    Mar 6th, 2011

    Whether motherhood is a choice or not, at least by my experience, employer believes it to be a choice. At times male members in team openly joke that the employer should have been informed of upcoming leave the next day of conception since mother knew that she is getting pregnant.
    If you dare to study it, please go beyond just motherhood. There are lot more about how employer views a single mother? What challenges and discriminations are faced? You must not exclude the fact of cultural perception about women?

  20. Nadine

    Mar 7th, 2011

    American culture still believes that the home is the primary workplace for women and rigidly inculcates this idea through social and religious indoctrination. The workplace still perceives women as secondary bread winners whose income supplements that of their male life partners. That is the prevailing attitude despite the fact women are captains of industry, members of Congress, generals in the Armed services, and Cabinet-level officials. It is not the concern of the employer to ask the personal questions about a woman’s marital status or how many children. In fact in some states such questions are deemed illegal and discriminatory. Also, many males see their female counterparts as threatening because women are competing with them for the same entitlements and privileges that employment offers. American men are socialized to believe that women are psychologically, physically, and socially inferior to them and therefore, do not deserve the same rights. Whether it is in education, job opportunities, pay, or even the right to have access to health care services, some men want women to remain in subservient roles because they do not want social responsibility of treating women with respect and dignity.

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