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March 27, 2023: The Motherhood Tax and The Perpetual Loop of the Patriarchy

There are two distinct points in a woman’s career that affect the trajectory of her entire life. The first is upon entry into the workforce and the second is when she becomes a mother. Researchers have focused mainly on the fork in the road occurring in motherhood, putting the pressure on working mothers to “choose” between career and home, but there’s more to it than that. Just as women from a young age experience the well-known pink tax, they also experience a different type of tax: what I like to call The Motherhood Tax. The Motherhood Tax is the all-encompassing series of roadblocks women face in the workplace simply because they are female. It sets women back from the beginning and promotes a positive feedback loop for men, providing them an increased likelihood to excel while creating a negative feedback loop for women. The pink tax and the motherhood tax both create an economic burden on women. When it comes to women in the workforce, The Motherhood Tax is a series of costly events that happen to women from the moment they enter the workforce, and it perpetuates throughout their career, whether they become mothers or not.

The Motherhood Penalty, Maternal Wall, and Glass Ceiling

According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of adults polled believe that women are treated differently by their employers. The first and most glaring evidence is the fact that there is a gender wage gap between men and women immediately out of college as they enter the workforce. In fact, women earn about 92 cents for every dollar a man makes among individuals in the same industries with the same jobs and exactly the same level of education. Beyond gender wage gaps, women endure the “motherhood penalty,” a term coined by sociologists to describe the systemic disadvantages women face in the workplace after they become mothers as compared to childless coworkers. What is often not acknowledged is that the motherhood penalty begins even before women become mothers, secondary to gender bias. All the “penalties” a woman experiences along the way are concepts that are adjacent to the real problem: These blockades are a form of taxation and create a perpetual loop that becomes hard to break once a woman enters its system.

But, that’s not it! Next comes the maternal wall, which is when “women who have been very successful suddenly find their proficiency questioned once they become pregnant, take maternity leave, or adopt flexible work schedules. Their performance evaluations may plummet, and their political support evaporates,” says Joan C. Williams, Law Professor and the author who created the term. Let’s say a woman who becomes pregnant and has a baby manages to jump over each hurdle. Then they must break through the glass ceiling, which is commonly used to describe the unwritten barriers women and minorities face when trying to advance to higher roles. Their lack of advancement is usually due to implicit biases and these barriers reinforce a common thread making it extremely hard for women to succeed. This is The Motherhood Tax.

We often think that women experience the gender wage gap due to motherhood, but the reality is that the gender wage gap exists due to the potential of motherhood. Making less money than men begins even before women become mothers in the form of gender discrimination. For women, the disparity in wages begins immediately upon entry to the workforce and this number is even greater for women of color. Why does this happen?

The loop, as it has been built, allows for less female competition at higher levels because of a calculated series of events

The Real Reason for the Gender Wage Gap

There is a compelling case that gender discrimination underlies the gap. Implicit bias in leadership lends itself to a familiar narrative: “She’ll be here for a bit, get married, have kids, and leave. We’re not investing in her.” By default of being female, this is the first distinct moment a woman begins paying The Motherhood Tax. Maternity leave often exacerbates this narrative due to the “inconvenience” management and coworkers endure due to a lack of paid leave on the federal level. This bias creates gender wage gaps that perpetuate the systemic structures of corporate America and secure more men in leadership roles while forcing more women, no matter their level of education, to scale back their careers in exchange for unpaid labor including childcare and household management.

We’ve all heard the reasons it’s best for the mother to stay home with the baby to perform the unpaid labor: maternal instincts, patience, simply being “better at it,” the list goes on... But in actuality, it’s a fully operational system of gaslighting and oppression. The loop, as it has been built, allows for less female competition at higher levels because of the following series of events:

Women are paid less from the beginning. Paying women less from the beginning means even with equivalent percentage raises as their colleagues, their salaries can’t compete with most males with similar years of experience. In an article from The Harvard Business Review, “societal norms lean to women still marrying men a few years older, and thus higher earning, than themselves. They then often cede career priorities to economic realities. (It’s less costly for the woman to step away from her job to care for the kids.)” If their salaries can’t compete with their spouse’s, they may choose to “opt out” of the workforce to raise their family. Once women opt out of the workforce, it leaves room for more men to succeed and then those very men now have an implicit bias towards working women. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that continues from generation to generation. For women, they sacrifice their gains for the “family unit” instead of for the individual.

According to Quartz, “70% of male business leaders in the US have stay-at-home spouses… and married men were far more likely than single men with equal amounts of education to climb to the top 1% of earners in the U.S.” The advantage to having a stay-at-home spouse is that, by default, male business leaders have “free” childcare and household management. Meanwhile, only 22% of the highest-earning women have a spouse who stays at home. These women are just as likely to be mothers or not and those who were mothers were outsourcing childcare and household management. Jill Yavorsky, assistant professor of sociology and organizational science at University of North Carolina Charlotte points out that even when a woman is able to climb the corporate ladder, she is rarely doing it with the support of a stay-at-home partner because their husbands are employed 84% of the time. To add insult to injury, nearly a quarter of these successful women have partners whose income is equal or greater to their own whereas men marry a high income earning woman only 3% of the time. “In other words, when women earn enough money to qualify for the one percent on their own, they rarely have access to a non-employed partner who likely performs the vast majority of housework and childcare, and/or manages the outsourcing of these activities,” says Yavorsky. “Married men, unlike married women, are more likely to have partners who perform the majority of unpaid labor in their household and are willing to compromise their own careers to favor their spouse’s ambitions.”

Time and time again, women have proven their value, yet there remains minimal advancement. Recent reports show that if at least one third of an executive committee is female, the company has more than ten times the net profit margin. If women are being ejected from the workplace because of the motherhood tax, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, it is no surprise career advancement is so challenging.

Setting Women Up For Failure

Beyond the U.S. being one of the only countries still not offering federal paid leave for new parents, these parents must also logistically configure what their new normal will look like as working parents and that includes some hefty childcare expenses. "The 'Demanding Change' report found that the national average annual cost of child care in 2020 was $10,174. That figure represents more than 10% of the median income for a married couple, and more than 35% of the median income for a single parent. The report also found the average increase in the cost of childcare is outpacing inflation by more than 3%. So, the spreadsheets begin: “How much do we each make?” “How much is childcare?” “Is it worth contributing that percentage of the income to childcare?” And therein we find the dealbreaker. Incomes, even if deposited into a joint account, are suddenly taken into consideration separately.

Childcare in the U.S. is reliant on parent income. With a perpetual gender pay gap, where women earn approximately 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, it is unsurprising that when couples are evaluating income potential, they have little choice but to default to the higher earner.

The discussion every household has is broken down to this: Husband makes “X” and wife makes “Y.” Childcare costs “Z.” Throughout America’s dual-income households, only 30 percent of wives earn more than their husbands. So, X minus Z provides more expendable income than Y minus Z. Is Y minus Z worth having? Will it be a sizable enough contribution when the tradeoff includes paying for childcare, less childcare predictability, and more logistical nightmares? This conversation with these very questions play out time and time again within American households. When a mother is not the higher earner and the family agrees to remain a dual-income home, childcare costs are weighed against the mother’s earnings. LinkedIn surveyed working women in the U.S. and parental leave was the top reason women said they took a career break. And of those women, nearly half said they felt they had to choose between prioritizing career over their kids. This is the second distinct point in a woman’s career in which she pays The Motherhood Tax. Women will endure this tax no matter their choice: It shows itself in the form of earnings she loses by not working or if she is working, her earnings minus childcare costs.

The Tax Women Pay to the Patriarchy

Since 1999, female employment has been on the decline because of economic regressions and here we are in the year 2023, having experienced yet another major setback in the form of a world pandemic. When the economy is thriving, women are given an opportunity to advance their careers, when really it should be viewed as the patriarchy taxing women less. Over the course of history, there has always been a direct correlation between a booming economy and female career opportunity and advancement. However, when the economy is in a recession, women are the first to be directly impacted. We have been tethered to this system for far too long and we know how this will end each time: women taking on the brunt of the country’s economic downfall. As stated by Jennifer Palmieri in her book, She Proclaims, “Our dependence on the old male models and our belief that following their path would eventually work out for us has ended up sustaining the very power systems that keep women from succeeding.” Break the loop and we change the outcome.

The gender wage gap isn’t really a gap. It is the tax women pay to the patriarchy. First, in the form of gender discrimination based on her potential of becoming a mother and second, in the form of subtracting childcare and other various outsourcing duties directly from her paycheck instead of from the sum of a dual income.

The reasons often cited for a lack of gender diversity in leadership roles include women’s greater tendency to sacrifice career for family, conscious and unconscious (implicit) bias, and a lack of mentorship opportunities, but they’re missing one. It’s not only the pink tax, motherhood penalty, lack of mentorship, or the fight to upend current societal norms. There’s a tax on women and that tax is not metaphorical. It is a direct payout from a woman’s salary. The gender wage gap isn’t really a gap. It is the tax women pay to the patriarchy. First, in the form of gender discrimination based on her potential of becoming a mother and second, in the form of subtracting childcare and other various outsourcing duties directly from her paycheck instead of from the sum of a dual income. It’s an endless loop nearly impossible to break.

Gender discrimination perpetuates gender wage gaps. Women enter the workforce making less than their male counterparts. After having a baby, it makes more financial sense for the breadwinner to continue working which, thanks to gender discrimination and implicit bias, is usually the male partner.

If there was any doubt that gender plays such a significant role in this discussion, “families with a same-gender male couple, both married and partnered, are the only couple type associated with having higher family incomes than opposite-gender married couples: $27,000 and $11,000 higher, respectively. Unlike their male counterparts, same-gender married female coupled families are associated with having average incomes that are $11,000 lower than opposite gender married coupled relationships, all else constant and women in same-gender unmarried coupled families are associated with having average incomes that are even lower: $26,000,” according to a recent analysis of U.S. Census data by the Brookings Institution. Compounding the situation, men expect their careers to be prioritized over their partner’s. In a large survey of graduates from Harvard’s MBA program, these expectations differed dramatically from their female classmates with Harvard MBAs. The women typically expected that careers, housework, and childcare would be equally prioritized by both partners. Unsurprisingly, the expectations men had regarding the priority of their careers were reported to have been met while nearly no women reported that their own career was prioritized over their husband’s.

Eve Rodsky makes the convincing argument in her book Fair Play that change begins when the tasks within a home are viewed with equal importance. This means that everyone needs to be on board with the concept that women’s time is just as valuable as men’s time. By quantitating the household workload and dividing these chores fairly, it brings us closer to gender equity: the fairness of treatment for men and women according to their respective needs. Rodsky states, “First, we must recognize that an hour of holding your child’s hand at the pediatrician’s office is just as important as an hour on a conference call.” As the cards currently stand, 39 percent of women reported that they are solely responsible for staying home when their children are sick. That number must change in the home for it to become normalized in the workplace.

The mindset that men’s careers should be prioritized causes one of two things to happen:

1. It forces women to “opt out” of paid work and become stay-at home moms.

2. Women return to work, remain a dual-income household, and they are the ones responsible to call out of work when issues arise with the children, which results in The Motherhood Penalty.

Either choice reinforces the cycle of gender bias and discrimination as her partner climbs the ladder on the rungs of her unpaid labor. Women are literally paying out the Motherhood Tax in each scenario.

This mindset is reinforced for men in the workforce via the fatherhood bonus. When men become fathers, they are rewarded with a pay increase and are viewed as having more competence. It is the direct converse to the motherhood penalty where women often incur a pay decrease and are perceived as less competent now that she is a mother. If this penalty is taken another step further and viewed as a form of tax, the system and how it works to benefit men and limit women becomes glaringly apparent.

The Outliers

So, what about the women who break the barriers, making it to the top? “I'm so aware that for a woman executive to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I have a housekeeper and I have a nanny and I have a whatever’—it's not very inspiring to somebody who might be at a different level in their career,” Sarah Mensah, vice president and general manager of Nike North America tells Fortune. She goes on to say, “But that doesn’t make the need for help and support any less real. Giving younger women realistic insight into how it actually all gets done, even if it's not glamorous, is critical.”

But is this the way? It may be the current reality, but this method of outsourcing isn’t inspiring at any career level. It means that most men aren’t equal partners. The title of the Fortune article is Childcare, housekeeper, and a personal assistant: Women are paying big bucks for support at home in order to reach the C-Suite. In analyzing women’s paths to leadership in countries across the globe, LinkedIn researchers found that women’s best chances of securing a leadership position at work is in the 10 year window at the beginning of their careers. In a NYT article, “A series of recent studies shows that in both the United States and Europe, the gender pay gap is much smaller until the first child arrives. Then women’s earnings plummet and their career trajectories slow. Women who do not have children, by and large, continue to grow their earnings at a similar rate to men. There are [pay gaps] because of discrimination and other factors, but researchers say that motherhood explains a large amount of the gap.” Those “big bucks” are quite literally why most women can’t succeed without paying into The Motherhood Tax.

Life as a working woman has always had its challenges, but these challenges are perpetuated by the current system standards and will not change until the missing piece of the puzzle is addressed: The Motherhood Tax endured by all women, whether they are mothers or not. If we think about wage gaps, motherhood penalties, maternal walls, and glass ceilings not as limitations but as a tax, the solution is clear: Break the cycle at the two distinct points in a woman’s career.

Moms with careers have always needed more support than they have received. They walk a tightrope, attempting to balance work on one side of the pole and home management on the other. The rope is thin and the weight on each side of the balancing pole keeps changing. One misstep and it all comes crashing down. Until there is no pay gap upon entering the workforce for women, there will always be a Motherhood Tax because it will most often be women making less than their male partners. Life as a working woman has always had its challenges, but these challenges are perpetuated by the current system standards and will not change until the missing piece of the puzzle is addressed: The Motherhood Tax endured by all women, whether they are mothers or not. If we think about wage gaps, motherhood penalties, maternal walls, and glass ceilings not as limitations but as a tax, the solution is clear: Break the cycle at the two distinct points in a woman’s career. The first junction is taxing women in the form of a gender pay gap, especially for new graduates and new hires. This is most achievable in the form of salary transparency and improving negotiation strategies for women. The second junction is the return-to-work status and prioritization of jobs within a dual-income home. Decreasing the first pay gap will give women a level playing field to open a real conversation in their home about who is more qualified to return to work and who should consider staying home. Ultimately, for women to succeed as equals, they must stop paying the motherhood tax. The articles and studies analyzing women at work outline roadblocks abound. Women keep getting on a hamster wheel built for the benefit of a patriarchy. They are working in a system and for a system that is working against them. 

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