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By now, we have all heard the news: when compared to fathers and childless men and women, employers are less likely to interview, hire, and promote mothers who are equally as qualified. Employers also evaluate and pay mothers less well than others.

Maybe mothers "deserve" these penalties because they are not engaged at work, put forth low effort levels, work less intensively, or because thoughts of kids and sleepless nights distract them on the job.

One way to tell if mothers are "deserving" of penalties would be to compare the self-reported ideal work behaviors of mothers, fathers, and non-parents.

I did just that.  The findings are probably not surprising to employed mothers, but raise questions about what employers reward at work and why mothers are not reaping the rewards.


I studied more than 2,000 full-time male and female workers using a nationally-representative sample of U.S. workers. After I accounted for things that affect the ability to engage in ideal work behaviors (work experience, education, age, number of hours worked per week, job quality, skill requirements of the job, occupation, work demands and stressors, number and age of children at home, household income, marital status, etc.), I found:

  • mothers report similar levels of work effort as fathers and non-parents (How much effort do you put into your work situation these days: 0 (no thought or effort) to 10 (very much thought and effort).
  • mothers are similar to fathers and non-parents in reports that their home responsibilities at home reduce their job effort
  • mothers are more engaged (defined as frequency with which a worker gets so involved in work that they forget about everything else, even the time) than fathers.  Mothers’ job engagement is no different than that of non-parents.
  • mothers work more intensively than fathers (defined as the frequency with which a worker is very busy trying to get things done)
  • mothers are similar to fathers and non-parents in reports that their home life relaxes and readies them for the next day’s work.
  • mothers are similar to fathers and non-parents in their reports that their home activities and chores prevent them from getting the amount of sleep needed to do their job.

Of course, maybe mothers just aren’t motivated by their family to work hard.  After all, this is the stereotype of male breadwinners.  Turns out that women and men are equally responsive to their breadwinning burden.

  •  Mothers are similar to fathers and non-parents in reports that providing for what is needed at home makes them work harder.


Although mothers do the lions’ share of child care giving and chores (mothers in the study averaged 11.85 hours of chores per week, fathers 8.67, and non-parents about 10.10 hours), how do they still engage in ideal work behaviors?  I suspect they adjust.

My own and others’ research suggests that women think that employers hold them to a higher standard than men.  To avoid the slacker label, mothers do what they assume is expected of them and fully—or over—engage in ideal work behaviors.  Mothers may also give up leisure time to avoid having their home demands spill over to negatively affect their jobs.

So if mothers aren’t slacking at work, what can explain the motherhood penalty?  The things mothers do at work may not be as well rewarded as the things men do, such as network with higher ups (it’s not that mothers can’t network—they may not be given the same networking opportunities as men).    Or maybe employers just cannot see—and, in turn, reward—ideal work behaviors in mothers since such behaviors clash with stereotypical notions about moms.

How do we change things?

  • Inform employers—perhaps through sexual harassment or diversity training programs that already exist—that caregiving discrimination is an illegal form of sex discrimination
  • Remind employers that assumptions about employed mothers are not necessarily true of mothers’ actual work behavior.
  • Rewrite rules and redesign policies that ban differential treatment on the basis of family responsibilities

Employers stand to gain a lot, both in terms of an engaged workforce and avoiding lawsuits, by employing and compensating mothers fairly.



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