Motherhood penalty - Ibec Engage

October 27, 2022

While there has been significant progress over the last number of decades for women in the workplace, there remain inequalities at work and at home for many women. One such area specifically impacts women who are also mothers.

The last two years of the pandemic have shone a spotlight on the challenges that can exist in juggling work and family responsibilities. In the past these may not have been as obvious as many working parents had structures in place to help them juggle the competing demands. Such challenges were particularly evident when childcare was closed, and children were engaged in schooling from home requiring many working parents to juggle their working hours around childcare or engage in unpaid leave arrangements. Ibec research found that women had more early starts, late finishes and sought more time off to look after children and elderly family members. Almost half (48%) of survey respondents said more women than men had requested changes to their working patterns and 31 per cent of respondents said that more female employees than males had asked for unpaid leave to facilitate caring responsibilities. During COVID-19, theoretically, for lots of families, working from home might have brought greater equality to the distribution of chores. However, research from the European Commission, reported that the pandemic brought about little-to-no positive change in that area for women. Global research finds that women do three times as much unpaid care work as men and according to McKinsey, women spend, on average, 5 or more hours on housework than men. This is so pronounced that women who are employed full-time are often said to be working a double shift. Oxfam research (2021) proposes that if women received a living wage for this invisible work and indirect contribution, it would cost the State €24bn a year. This has real implications for the participation of women in the labour market and is borne out by the statistics on employment rates.

The employment rate for women was 63.7% in 2019, a rate that varied from 88.1% for women with no children, to 66.8% for women whose youngest child was aged between 4 and 5 years of age1. The rate for men stayed almost the same regardless of children, ranging between 91.5% for men with no children, to 92.7% for men whose youngest child was aged between 4 and 5 years of age. These figures would support the reality of home and caring responsibilities falling predominantly to females leading to their absence from the workplace. There is also a trend towards women delaying having their first child until age 31 with some research suggesting women are concentrating on their career to get to a particular level before having children due to the challenges encountered in combining these roles.

In many workplaces, despite the prevalence of women at work for decades, dual career couples and societal changes, there remains an ideal of a worker who is either without dependents or with a spouse in the home to take care of all family matters. This can lead to what global research terms a “motherhood” penalty. The motherhood penalty refers to the experience of additional challenges usually to development, promotion and access to projects that lead to promotion and leadership roles, faced by mothers in the workplace.

The challenges can start when the individual is pregnant. Usually with the best of intentions, a manager can either handle the employee with kid gloves or give them little attention through lack of knowledge on how to deal with pregnancy at work. Sometimes managers may see only a pregnant woman rather than a competent professional and try to protect her during the pregnancy or remove her from what they deem stressful projects or engagements. While intentions are good, this can make the employee feel like they are being penalised for being pregnant. This has implications not only during that time but also can impact the successful return from maternity leave.

The reasons for this seem to date back to the time when traditionally men were breadwinners in the workplace and women caregivers in the home and how organisations were set up around a linear career model which has not changed dramatically despite the changed societal norms. Straying from these norms sees different experiences for parents. Fathers who take on some child or family duties are often seen positively as ‘helping out at home’ whereas mothers are often assumed to be less committed or less available and therefore inappropriate candidates for demanding senior roles due to their family status. This is often regardless of the structures working mothers may have put in place to enable their workplace participation and career ambition.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family says, “pregnant women and mothers are assumed to be less committed to their careers, and every time they leave the office or ask for any flexibility, that commitment is further called into question.” Being seen in a caregiving role tends to boost men’s reputation and elicit warmth from others (when temporary) but when women’s caregiving is visible it triggers doubts about their capabilities. In many cases, women with children were viewed as less competent and less committed than women without children and men, including fathers. This resulted in women meeting the same obstacles, often early in their careers, and when they reduced work hours or stepped back to care for children the result was long lasting, impacting salary and promotions for many years and yielding a significant gender gap at the top of most professions.

This situation is problematic for all, work-family tension impacts both genders, women lose out on opportunities, men lose out on feeling accepted as caregivers (research finds men may be hesitant to take parental leave for example, due to stigma or fear of being penalised at work), companies lose out on talent, and the economy loses out on the $28 trillion that could be added to the global GDP if we reach full gender equality3.


To address this motherhood penalty requires a whole of society solution. It requires a solution to the affordability of quality childcare and the availability of baby places in creches, two issues that result in working parents, usually mothers, having to adjust how they work. Additionally, it requires societal change around what we think of men, women and gender and the implications that has for the division of labour outside of work and the roles and occupations that men and women occupy. Debunking gender stereotypes will enable more men and women to take an active role both in and outside the workplace thus normalising the situation and removing the penalty for mothers.

At an organisational level there is an opportunity as we exit the pandemic to examine the workplace model of work to see if it prioritises long continuous traditional work hours or whether it offers flexibility to enable all employees to work to the full of their potential, both for themselves and the organisation. Given the competition for talent and labour, it will offer organisations who tackle this challenge and accommodate the reality of today’s working parents, a competitive advantage in attracting talent. Doing so will eliminate the motherhood penalty — and bring us another step closer to economic equity for all.

To achieve this will require a supporting culture which demonstrates that career and family are not incompatible. This will require leaders to role model their commitment to work and life outside of work, to normalise its importance as this facilitates us bringing our whole selves to work. Where possible flexible working should be available as a default, as this can offer everyone an even, playing field. It creates a culture where this is a norm and not a novelty, removing the burden from employees to justify why the role should be flexible. This may require investment in technology, although many through the pandemic have already made this investment, as well as training for managers on how to manage flexible or hybrid teams effectively.

Some companies have taken proactive action in their policies to ensure the removal of any motherhood penalty in their organisations by prioritising family friendly practices and in particular shared leave. A number of employers have introduced a family leave policy that enables both parents to take 26 weeks paid leave following the birth/adoption of a child. Others have developed a culture that embraces family friendly arrangements including inviting returning parents to work reduced hours/part time while on full pay as they make the transition back to the workplace.

To continue the progress of work on gender balance it is essential that we tackle the lack of parity between those who have caring responsibilities and those who do not and make strides towards enabling all employees to fulfil their potential without sacrificing aspects of their work life balance as a result.

Kara McGann

Head of Social Policy