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Diversity and Inclusion
Unconscious Bias
Work and Organizations

The cost of choosing motherhood

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.