motherhood penalty?

For those mothers in academia, do you/did you perceive a motherhood penalty either in graduate school or on the job market? I just heard the author of this paper speak this week, and what was presented painted a bleak picture. While this paper had already pointed out a wage penalty for mothers, the argument put forth has been critiqued from a number of angles – differences in human capital, selection bias, etc. But now we know – according to experimental and audit data – that mothers, although equally qualified to non-mothers, are less likely to be hired, less likely to be judged as competent, and receive less pay when hired. As summed up by this commenter on the ABC site:

I love this article, and from the comments, it’s really shows the sense of entitlement working mothers feel towards their employers. I personally am glad Moms are feeling a job bias, there’s a good reason for it. I work as a computer programmer, and most of my co-workers are male. In the few instances I’ve had to work on a project with a working mother, it never fails that she’s unwilling to put in the hours needed. I worked with a woman who refused to work past 6, even if the rest of her male co-workers were working until at least 11 and forget about weekend work, she wouldn’t even answer her phone on the weekends, and was unapologetic that she was off on ‘mommy duty’ when the rest of the team was stuck in the office every weekend for a month. Her priorities where her kids, and was unapologetic that she was dumping all her work on her male co-workers. Of course, when she was let go, she claimed discrimination. There’s a reason so many companies don’t even want to hire American programmers, too many Americans have no work ethic compared to all the Asian immigrants who are desperate to come here and work 15 hour days without complaining. Luckily I now work at a company where overtime is required and so far no working mommies have applied, what a surprise.

(Not sure where the Americans vs. Asians come into the argument…)

But the evidence of discrimination with experimental and audit data, not the actual experiences of real mothers, and not mothers in academia. So my question is, for mothers in academia, what has been your experience as a mother? Many of you became mothers after already being in academia – how did things change? I’m asking because I’ve only been a mother in graduate school – I don’t know what the non-mother experience is like to compare to the mother experience. But I have some ideas…I’ll wait to post them until after I’ve heard from you.

15 thoughts on “motherhood penalty?

  1. I perceive the motherhood penalty even though I am not a mother.

    I’m married and a little older than the average graduate student in my department and parenting has come up in several conversations with faculty and staff… more than once it ends with someone telling me: “you are not planning on having children now, right?”


  2. Sorry, I didn’t finish the idea.
    I feel like mothers (or wanting to be mothers) are many times perceived in academic circles the same way that the ABC commenter describes.


  3. I mostly perceive the motherhood penalty in terms of hours put in at the office. I try to minimize the amount of time Junior spends in day care so I drop her off at 9am and usually pick her up by 4:30 — I work most nights from 8-12 but this work isn’t visible to my colleagues. I’m lucky to be in a non-face time department — this would hurt me elsewhere. In grad school, I felt isolated because I was at home with her. My program supported this but it probably cost me a bit in terms of capital — I missed some talks with eminent professors, didn’t hang around the office as much, didn’t go to as many workshops.

    I attended two grad programs — one in which the pregnant grad students seemed to disappear off the face of the earth and I definitely felt it wasn’t supported (don’t know whether this is fair or not, it’s just what I perceived). In the other, I had my baby and got a lot of suport — not just emotional support, but a supervisor who allowed me to do extra work before the birth to facilitate a maternity leave (even though grad students typically don’t qualify for them) and pushed extra hard to get me a fellowship even though she knew baby was due in November of that year. I also technically lost eligibility to lecture because I couldn’t the summer I had priority because of the baby — the department changed the rules for me because “we do NOT want to penalize students for becoming parents.” My grad advisor also had his kids in grad school and was great about it.

    I thought a lot about whether to admit I was a parent on the job market. In the end, I didn’t bring it up unduly but if kids came up, I said I had one (I was also illegally asked a couple of places). In the end, my thought was that if a place wouldn’t hire me because of the kid, I didn’t really want to work there. I interviewed at 5 places and got 4 offers so I don’t think it mattered as much as people seem to think it does (second choice at the 5th, behind a single, childless guy who had been a professor for 5 years — hard to attribute motherhood discrimination to that decision). I worry it will cost me in terms of publishing but I’d worry about that with any job. For me, relative to other sorts of jobs, academia (grad school and on the tenure-track) is a great place to mix parenthood and a career — the flexibility far outweighs the costs, which might actually be worse in other careers.


  4. I had my first baby while still untenured, my second after tenure. As I’ve written elsewhere, I was not able to get as much done when the children were young, there are a limited number of hours in the day. People (who are mostly men) who have spouses who do most of the child care pay less of a penalty in work time than people (who are mostly but not only women) who do significant child care. There are two different (although related) issues: (1) how much work you can get done given the finiteness of hours in a week and (2) other people’s discrimination. I feel that in my case #1 was more of an issue than #2. I think jobs differ a lot in the extent to which there is a culture of working 70 hours a week and feelings by those who are working the 70 hours that those who are not are slackers. I don’t see any way to combine hands-on parenting with a 70-hour a week job. But there are jobs — in the academy and out — that can be done well in a 40-hour week. You may not be as individually competitive as the folks putting in the longer weeks, but you can still be respected for what you are and what you do.


  5. When preparing to go on the market, I was told very directly “don’t dare go onto that market visibly pregnant. Don’t even think about it.” Those advisors were very aware of a bias. Another colleague, however, said, “hey–if you can control your fertility like that, then by all means…But most women can’t plan when they get pregnant. If you’re ready to start trying, than start trying, and you can work around whatever happens.”

    I’m lucky to be heading to an institution that extends the tenure clock for every child, and academia can be fairly child-friendly, especially when compared to other fields. It may be harder to write and publish while raising children, (and I agree with Olderwoman that men often don’t struggle with this issue–I’ve heard of men taking paternity leaves, but really using it for writing because their wives were still the primary caregivers) but at least you have some control over your schedule, and unless you’re co-authoring, there is nobody depending on you to pull your weight on a schedule that is compatible with theirs.

    The comments about Asian workers aside, I understood that commentor’s perspective. She/He was working closely with a colleague who had a different set of values–that doesn’t work well in collaborative work settings, whether the absent co-worker is spending time caring for children, tending to aging parents, spending additional time with a partner or spouse, or off windsurfing. We can certainly bemoan the fact that the commentor doesn’t value child-raising as much as he/she should, but I think the larger problems is a labor system that has not yet evolved to accommodate the unique needs of women within the system. As women, we have to come to terms with that. While working to change the system, we also have to make decisions based on the present reality. You prioritize your goals, and decide what gives meaning to your life. If tenure is a high priority, then you might let that influence your family planning decisions. If time home with children is a priority, it probably makes sense to find a work environment where your employer, and your colleagues, understand and appreciate that. And if a colleague can’t understand that, then, like the commentor, they go somewhere else. As I think about starting a family, I feel incredibly lucky–academia is probably as good as it gets.


  6. probably somewhat off-topic, but as a non-parent but partner of an extremely ‘hands-on’ father, i think it’s kind of sad that the ABC commenter made this a ‘men vs women’ issue when it could just as easily be a ‘parent vs non-parent’ issue. realistically it may come dpwn to a choice of whether you want to be a parent or a career man/woman first, but it’s a shame when the attitudes of institutions or co-workers make those things seem mutually exclusive.


  7. Char, in principle I agree with you that the issue should be parents vs. non-parents. However, if you look at the actual article on the “motherhood penalty” though, you’ll see that there is no similar “fatherhood penalty”. In fact, men who are parents appear to receive a “fatherhood bonus” — i.e. they are perceived as more competent and are more likely to be hired than childless men. So they’re perhaps right to focus on mothers rather than parents in general.


  8. I’m so glad I found your blog!

    I am in a non-tenure track position and when I told my chair I wanted to take FMLA I was told that he or she didn’t think it applied to me because I’m in a non-tenured position. This was quickly followed up with, “I helped write this university’s maternity leave policy. You should have seen it before.” I qualifed for FMLA. I know the law well (as does this chair) and had already discussed it with HR.

    I am also growing disillusioned by my field. Why are we patting academia on the back for extending the tenure clock one additional year for each child (this is not policy at all universities)? Why should I have less job security over a longer period of time because I’ve chosen to become a parent? These are people that know better (they understand the mommy penalty). Academia might be a “better” fit with parenthood than other careers but I’m growing less sure of that every day.

    I am also finishing up my doctorate and am growing frustrated over having to censor myself on social networking sites on the chance that potential employers (or my current employer) stumble upon my postings. I’m jealous of my non-academia mom friends that can post an ultrasound photo as their profile photo. I’m nervous posting it anywhere on my profile even though the profile is private, excluding the profile photo and headline.

    To me academia is a disappointment because these people know better than to discriminate.

    My husband has also run into problems at his non-academic job. He is taking their paid parental leave and his boss told him he didn’t think he qualified because he isn’t the primary caregiver. What is a primary caregiver? He is no more or no less the primary caregiver than me.

    FMLA may be law but in practice intimidation is used inside and outside of academia to discourage workers from taking it.


  9. I’m always surprised by predominantly male and childless attitudes about what female workers do with their workload. I wonder where all the next male programmers will come from if the women don’t have them because it’s just too hard.

    I am thoroughly disillusioned with what my 2-year break for a child has done to my employability. In some ways I wish I’d never bothered to study, I could easily have got to this point without two degrees. At least I would feel less of a sense of loss.


  10. You know, its why I’ve not taken a break to have my kids. Well, one because I couldn’t afford to, and two because of the lack of value placed on child birthing and child rearing and this idea that you are doing nothing and your skills are somehow atrophying.


  11. I was in grad school with one kid, then had another one while in grad school. My husband stayed at home with the children. I worked very long hours, were sent to prestigious conferences, and ended up with several academic job offers. I think it’s not men vs women, parent vs non-parent, it’s simply those who prioritize their career or those who prioritize being the hands on parent to their children. I find this to be the case as well with many succesful female academics — they have a stay at home spouse.


  12. Linda, I don’t agree. First, I guess it would make sense that anyone who does nothing but their work would be rewarded in that environment. That goes without saying.

    But when you start comparing different groups of people, the data speaks against you. Single women who do nothing but their career vs. mothers who do nothing but their career fare better in the job market. Father fare better than mothers. Your’s is actually a perfect example of this – I bet there are women who have no children who didn’t work as hard as you and got the same type of offers you did. You had to work harder to prove yourself because you are a woman.

    Of course it’s a personal decision, and I assume you prioritized your career because you wanted to do that. In that you wanted to work long hours and go to prestigious conferences because there was something inherent to your work that you loved, and getting several job offers was really important to you for some internal reason. But for a lot of people they don’t do it because they want to, they do it because they think they have to, they have to work long hours because they think its required to get many job offers, they think its required to get something they think they want at the end of the process.

    Personally, I prioritize both, raising my kids and having a great career, and I don’t have a stay at home spouse nor does my spouse want to stay at home. And I’m a pretty successful grad student. I apply and am accepted to the top conferences in my my field. I’m at a top university in my field. How this will turn out in my academic job offers, I guess we’ll see. But I’m okay with that because I recognize it for what it is. I work long hours when I’m really interested in what I’m doing, not because I’m really interested in getting a lot of academic offers just for the hell of it.
    I’m a sociologist, and recognize the game for what it is.

    At the end of the day, I do think your work speaks for itself. I’m confident that I produce good work. Will I be at the top of the job market? Probably not, cause I don’t prioritize the career over my kids – I’m not competing on that level, and even if I did, the data shows I’d still be at a disadvantage as soon as employers knew I had kids. You’re fighting an uphill battle. Might as well make it on your terms.


  13. As a single Mom beginning grad school this fall at an R1 university, I am thrilled to have found this discussion and hope to add some of my own insights in the near future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s