How maternal bias fuels the gender pay gap

by | Sep 12, 2022 | Gender Equality | 0 comments

Since the 1970s, gender pay discrimination has been illegal in Canada. But today in 2022, more than 50 years later, women still earn 89 cents for every man’s dollar—a disparity which is even more significant for Indigenous women, disabled women, immigrant women, and racialized women (Canadian Women’s Foundation 2022).
The World Economic Forum just published its most recent Global Gender Report, which revealed that at the current rate of progress, gender parity would not be achieved in North America for another 59 years, and at a global scale they predict it will take 132 years (2022) – in other terms, we have a long way to go. For women of colour, immigrant women and mothers, the gap widens (UN Women 2021).

So, where do we begin?

Let’s look at a key factor causing the gap – motherhood.

What research shows us is that the gap isn’t so much about being a woman as it is about being a mother.

According to data from Statistics Canada, women with children earn systemically less than women without children; the wage gap disparity between men and women with children is far more significant than the one between men and women without children (Statistics Canada 2015).

The pay gap begins to widen significantly when men and women hit their thirties, which is also the most common age (31) that birthing mothers have their first child in Canada (Stats Can 2020).

While women evidently see their earnings drop in the years following childbirth, men actually see their salaries increase (Naidu-Ghelani 2019; University of British Columbia 2018). This is what has been referred to as a “Fatherhood Bonus” and a “Motherhood Penalty”, and the Motherhood Penalty is estimated to account for 80% of the gender pay gap (Canadian Women’s Foundation 2022; Whiting 2022).

So, what exactly is the Motherhood Penalty?

It’s the stereotypes and biases around motherhood that assume women will be less committed to their careers once they have children (Whiting 2022). For instance, when Harvard law professor Joan C. Williams was studying stereotypes in the workplace, she noticed that pregnant women and new mothers are cloaked in a “haze of femininity,”; they are assumed to be “empathetic, emotional, gentle, nonaggressive” or, in other terms, “not very good as business” (Harvard Business Review 2004)
These assumptions lead to a systematic disadvantage for women in the workplace as they’re perceived to be less competent and committed, are less likely to be promoted or even hired, are offered lower salaries, and experience higher professional standards (Harvard Business Review, 2004).

The reality, however, is that mothers are actually really good for business.

A lot of the qualities that mothers’ possess, like communication, diplomacy, remaining calm under fire, and more, are the building blocks of a strong leader.
In fact, the 2018 Bright Horizons Modern Family Index found that 89% of American workers believe that mothers bring out the best in their employers, 84% believe that having mothers in a leadership role will make a business more successful, and 65% describe working moms as better listeners than other employees (Bright Horizons).

However, in that same study, 69% of respondents said working mothers are more likely to be passed up for a new job than other employees, 60% admitted that career opportunities are given to less qualified employees instead of mothers who are more skilled, and 51% viewed mothers are less devoted to their work (Bright Horizons 2018).

It’s clear that those who “lead like a mom” are an asset to business, but mothers are not being supported to advance in their careers or retain positions of leadership (Bright Horizons 2018). That is likely a big contributing factor to the fact that 90% of all C-Suite level positions in Canada are still held by men (Catalyst 2021).

If we did more to invest in mothers, especially in the years following maternity leave, that number might look a bit different.

Our society might also look a bit different.

We can all become advocates for mothers, and in turn, gender equity. Can you think of any biases you might hold towards mothers, both at home and in the workplace? Could you shift your own narrative around motherhood?

If you’re a people leader, or an organization, join Maturn’s Management Training Workshop, which will support you to navigate your employee’s maternity leave journey and create clear and positive conditions for the transition to and from leave.

You can also invest in comprehensive programs like Maturn, which directly support mothers at all stages of maternity leave.


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