The Hidden Penalty of Motherhood

And how it impacts women's careers

mother holding child
Photo: Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images

Being a mother can be extremely rewarding in many ways, but it can have unintended consequences for moms who want to pursue a career while raising a family. The "motherhood penalty" can affect women as they attempt to make a steady climb up the career ladder. In addition, it can impact their ability to build wealth and create a secure financial future. 

The motherhood penalty may not be fair, but it's a reality that many women face. Understanding how this penalty is imposed on mothers—and how it affects their career outlooks—is essential for women as they shape their financial plans. 

What the Motherhood Penalty Looks Like

In general, the motherhood penalty assumes that mothers cannot maintain the same professional footing as their male colleagues or women who don't have children. This can play out in the workplace in several ways, but perhaps the biggest sting is how it affects a woman's earning potential. 

According to a report from Third Way, a national think tank, the typical mother sees her earning power drop by 4% for each child she has. Interestingly, the opposite is true for men. Upon becoming a father, men see their income rise by 6%. That inverse relationship suggests that employers may still largely view men and women in traditional roles, with women as caregivers and men as breadwinners. 

Alternatively, the drop in earnings experienced by mothers may result from them taking time away from work to raise their children or downshifting into a part-time or lower-paying role to be more available to their family. According to the Pew Research Center, women spend a combined total of 32 hours per week on childcare and housework, compared to just 18 hours for men.


The motherhood penalty also applies to women re-entering the workforce after taking a hiatus to care for children. A study published in the American Sociological Review found that stay-at-home moms are half as likely to land a job interview as mothers who had been laid off from their previous job.

The motherhood penalty can manifest itself in other ways. The 2021 Women in the Workforce study found that one in three working mothers have considered leaving the workforce or downgrading their responsibilities to care for children during the pandemic and the following economic circumstances.

It can become even more difficult for women to advance when they're mothers. Employers may question a mother's ability to meet the demands of her professional role. Consequently, they don't offer opportunities for advancement, and the result is that many mothers plateau professionally.

Countering the Effects of the Motherhood Penalty

The motherhood penalty can't be eliminated overnight. Despite changes in gender equality at work, many women will continue to face its effects. For those considering motherhood, it's wise to have a solid plan in place for securing financial health. The centerpiece of that plan should be your retirement outlook. 

Earning less means you may have less income available to save for your later years. In that scenario, women need to take full advantage of opportunities to grow their savings. That includes saving enough in your employer's 401(k) or a similar tax-advantaged plan to qualify for the full matching contribution. Adjusting your contributions by 1% annually is a way to step up your savings rate gradually so that it rises in tandem with your income.


You are allowed to roll over your HSA balance each year and earn tax-free interest on the growing balance.

If your employer offers a high-deductible health plan, a Health Savings Account is another avenue for saving in a tax-advantaged way. These accounts offer a triple tax benefit: tax-deductible contributions, tax-deferred growth, and tax-free withdrawals for qualified medical expenses. Yearly contributions limits for 2022 are $3,650 for singles and $7,300 for families.

What many aren't aware of, though, is that after age 65, you can withdraw HSA funds for any reason without a penalty. You only have to pay regular income tax on the withdrawal. An HSA could be used as a retirement savings supplement in a pinch, which is a plus for mothers who haven't fully met their retirement goals. 

For married mothers who are stepping away from work temporarily, a spousal IRA may be another way to save. With a spousal IRA, your spouse can make an IRA contribution on your behalf, even if you don't have an income of your own. The contribution limits are the same as traditional and Roth IRAs: $6,000 for 2021 and 2022, plus an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution if you're 50 or older. 

Use Career Breaks Wisely

If you spend time out of the workforce to raise children, getting back into the job market may be more difficult after an extended break. For that reason, it's important to make the most of the time you're at home. 

Stay abreast of the latest trends in your industry and consider expanding your skill set during this time. Update your resume while addressing any gaps in your knowledge base. Remember to stay in touch with members of your network while also forging new professional connections.

Most important, get crystal clear about your vision for going back to work. Setting your expectations for what you want to achieve professionally and as a mother can help you balance the workplace and home. Despite the challenges, many women are finding ways to do just that.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Third Way. "The Fatherhood Bonus and the Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay."

  2. Pew Research Center. "8 Facts About American Dads."

  3. Katherine Weisshaar. "From Opt Out to Blocked Out: The Challenges for Labor Market Re-entry After Family-Related Employment Lapses," American Sociological Review.

  4. McKinsey & Company. "Women in the Workplace 2021."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "26 CFR 601.602: Rev. Proc. 2022-25."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 969 (2020), Health Savings Accounts and Other Tax-Favored Health Plans."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - IRA Contribution Limits."

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