Women Are Penalized at Work for the Possibility They Might Have Kids Someday

Photo: jacoblund/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The “motherhood penalty” is a term that was coined to describe what happens to women’s salaries after they have kids. No, their salaries don’t rise to cover the ever-increasing cost of child care, threat to health care, and price of education. Instead, women’s salaries have statistically proven to drop when they return to work — 4 percent for every child they have. There is no “fatherhood penalty,” because, well, men tend to be paid more after they have children. Go figure.

But now new research shows that women don’t even have to have had kids to experience the motherhood penalty. The Harvard Business Review wrote about a study wherein researchers sent out fictitious résumés from “elite” applicants to 316 offices of 147 top law firms in 14 cities. Except for signifiers of gender and class, the résumés were identical: All applicants were from second-tier law schools and in the top one percent of their class.

The study attempted to distinguish between economic advantages and disadvantages: “Our higher class candidate pursued traditionally upper-class hobbies and sports, such as sailing, polo, and classical music, while the lower-class candidate participated in activities with lower financial barriers to entry (e.g., pick-up soccer, track and field team),” the report says.

So who do you think got the most callbacks ?

Even though all educational and work-related histories were the same, employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man. He had a callback rate more than four times of other applicants and received more invitations to interview than all other applicants in our study combined. But most strikingly, he did significantly better than the higher-class woman, whose resume was identical to his, other than the first name.

Why could that possibly be? HBR followed up with 200 practicing attorneys nationwide to assess the résumés from the study, and overwhelmingly the attorneys said the women were “the least committed.” According to the report, the higher-class women were seen by the attorneys as “flight risks,” adding that leaving their jobs to have families was a threat. One female attorney interviewed for the study told the HBR that a higher-class woman specifically is seen as an undesirable candidate because she is well-off enough to not need a job, and believed to have a husband to support the family she inevitably would like to have, even if she does not have either.

The Motherhood Penalty Hurts Women Who Don’t Have Kids Yet