How to Avoid the Mom Penalty

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On June 10 eight years ago, I left my office for the evening and promptly went into labor with my second son.

This June 10, we'll be commemorating a whole other kind of labor: It’s Equal Pay Day for mothers, the date that marks how many extra days in 2019 mothers have to work to earn the same wages that fathers did last year. (I’ll probably also be baking a Hogwarts-themed birthday cake, because that’s how we moms roll: Do it all, with a side of Pinterest.)

The reason for this disparity? Something social scientists have named the Motherhood Penalty—the precipitous decline in pay and status that working women experience after having a child. Somebody pass the icing spatula, stat.

How big a deal is the Motherhood Penalty? Eighty percent of the gender wage gap can be attributed to this “mommy tax.” Research shows that mothers’ income drops 30% after the birth of a first child, and a study out of Harvard found that moms are offered starting salaries 8% lower than women who are not parents, and 9% lower than fathers. Considering these realities, it’s easy to see why nearly a third of college-educated mothers drop out of the workforce around the birth of their first child.

If you're a woman having a kid, or you're already a mother, or even if there are other mothers in your workplace—there are ways to combat this inequality. How, exactly? Well, there are a set of moments—moments of negotiation, of declaration of intent—when it's possible to confront these biases and affect your professional future. And maybe even change things for moms in the future. And if you're mindful about seizing these moments, you may not only avoid the Motherhood Penalty for yourself, you could play a part in changing the system. “Be a trailblazer in changing these policies,” urges Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, founder of The Fiscal Femme, a corporate financial-wellness consultancy. “You’re doing it for women everywhere.”

Eighty percent of the gender wage gap can be attributed to this “mommy tax.”

Should it be your job—as a qualified worker, exhausted mother, and midnight baking demon—to correct this deep-seated societal injustice? Of course not. But the system isn’t going to fix itself.

Moment #1: Hi, boss. I'm having a baby! And...

Hooray! (Or yikes!) You need to tell your workplace you’re expecting. It may seem early, but this is the first in a series of key conversations that will determine the impact on your career of having children. So once you get through the initial “Hey boss, guess what?” it’s time to lay the groundwork—on your terms, not just theirs—for the financial and career-growth ramifications of your time away from work.

First, the timing conversation: The fact that you're planning to keep on your career trajectory can be part of the conversation from the beginning.Your baby is due when your baby is due (possibly sooner!). So let's figure out the workload that will need to be covered during your leave. Is there a seasonal project you’ll miss, or a yearly 360-degree review you’d normally be a part of? Acknowledge those events with your manager to show that you’re thinking of the institutional needs and planning for them—and that you’re committed to returning after baby. Put your stake in the organizational ground. That will put you in a better position for the financial conversation that’s next. “It’s always hard to have these conversations because you’re scared,” says Jennifer Justice, a single mother by choice (of twins!) and the founder of The Justice Dept, a female-focused advisory and legal team. “But remember, it costs a lot more money to replace people than it does to keep them happy when they raise a concern about equal pay.”

The paid-leave conversation: Getting enough time off when you have a baby is instrumental when it comes to staying on the career and salary track you want.The best research shows that the minimum amount of paid time off mothers need to protect their mental and physical health—not to mention the baby’s physical health—is six months. I know that sounds daunting, but progress is being made on this front. And by negotiating confidently with your employer, you’ll contribute to that progress. Whatever you can do to get close to that six-month mark—cobbling together state-mandated paid leave, PTO, comp time, disability, etc., or even saving up vacation days in advance for unpaid time away—will make it more likely that you'll come back more able to do quality work because you’ll be fully there. And you won’t have had to spend a huge chunk of your savings in the meantime, which, in addition to stressing you and your family in all kinds of harmful ways, would also compromise your financial independence and bargaining power down the line.  

Start by using this WealthSimple story to predict your personal cost of maternity leave, and research what’s offered by your employer. (Don't forget to account for things like annualized bonus, commission, and billable hours if those are in your compensation model.) Then engage in negotiations with your workplace to cover as much of those ideal six months as possible.


I've done my own research on how to broach the topic of getting more paid leave, and here are two of the approaches people say work best:

• “I’ve been researching our competitors, and on average they offer XX more paid leave than we do…”

• “I’ve been researching our competitors, and none of them have leave that’s humane and modern. I think we have a real opportunity to be a leader and offer better benefits that will impact our recruiting and retention…”

Will you get to six full months if your employer normally offers six weeks? Probably not. But every additional week you squeeze out of them moves the needle on your own wellness and ability to do your job well when you return to work.

Moment #2: Hi, father of our soon-to-be child, how much time are you taking off?

The amount of parental leave your partner takes has a profound impact—not just on your home life but eventually on your career. When a mother stays home far longer than a father, even couples with the most thoroughly equitable intentions do accidental financial damage. Mom becomes an expert at All Things Baby and is more susceptible to gatekeeping—that awful, self-defeating habit of, say, hating the way your husband diapers the baby and therefore not letting him do it. Next thing you know, you’re the one packing all of the second-grade lunches at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday in 2025—and seething. (Remember: Divorce is expensive, and not very fun.)

If your partner takes paternity leave, he will have a better relationship with your children well into their teenage years (proven fact!), your marriage will benefit, and the women in his workplace will feel that their work is better valued. And if you two can take some of your parental leave in succession, you'll save on newborn childcare, the most expensive care of all.

If that’s not enough, here’s the argument in pure dollars: For every month of paternity leave a father takes, his wife’s earnings increase by 7%. On the flip side, when men don’t take parental leave, or when they take less than what’s available, they send a very clear message: “My work is worth more than my parenting.” Which just keeps the vicious circle spinning. In the past two years, companies including Walmart, Starbucks, and Cisco have all started offering substantial parental leave for dads. Change is coming.

Moment #3: I'm ready to come back to work, but I'll need to organize things differently at first...

Sometimes having a kid impacts your schedule. (By “sometimes” we mean “always.”) And that may mean you need to tweak some things at work. Negotiating for flexibility as a new mother does not mean you have to pay for it in salary or status. (Repeat that phrase like a mantra.) It is absolutely possible to request a new work schedule, style, or duties without negatively impacting your standing…but it takes preparation. You want to be self-aware but not embarrassed; transparent but not obnoxious.

First and foremost: Don’t assume you have to take a pay cut. If you are moving to a four-day week, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to prorate your salary—but your company will likely take the opportunity to do so unless you resist. Step one: Know what’s in your job description and figure out how you can deliver that in the content of what you’re requesting. Will you be working the same total number of hours, will you be responsible for the same deliverables? Will less commuting time give you more work hours? Lean into that. Also, ask around to determine what precedent has been set by other employees, formally or not, and fold this intel into your proposed plan.

Keep your full-time status. This is less about your paycheck and more about your copay. When you maintain full-time status—which at many workplaces means only 35, or even 28, hours per week—you preserve your full benefits, the loss of which is a major contributor to the Motherhood Penalty. Do the math on the value of things like your paid time off, health insurance, and 401(k) match, and you may find that it’s well worth eking out a few extra hours to count as full-time. Says Bobbi Rebell, CFP, host of the “Financial Grownup” podcast, “That protects benefits that you might not even think about in the moment, things like disability pay and access to future parental leave.” Being full-time might even protect you from layoffs, she adds. “Many companies have a stronger obligation to their full-time workforce when making cuts.”  

Beware the flex Friday. If you want to work from home one day a week or use flexible hours, don’t automatically grant yourself a three-day weekend until you’ve assessed your workplace’s “calendar culture.” Skipping Tuesdays might be a better bet. “Lots and lots of good opportunities come up on Fridays,” warns Rebell. As people wind up their weeks and their to-do lists, there’s often a flurry of finish-line-crossing that can keep you from getting full credit for the previous four days of work.

Strike a (strategic) conciliatory note. If you’re sensing managerial resistance that’s threatening your efforts to get what you want, suggest that you try this plan temporarily, with a check-in date after a few months so both sides can reassess. If you maintain your performance during this critical trial period, it’s far less likely that you’ll lose any of the ground you’ve gained.

It is absolutely possible to request a new work schedule, style, or duties without negatively impacting your standing.

Key Moment #4: Hmm, maybe with the cost of childcare and the extra stress, it's not worth it to keep working...

It’s not just you. In the context of a system in which mothers are often underpaid, in which childcare costs too much, and social pressure to be the primary parent simply because you’re female is real, the urge to quit isn’t just common. It’s ubiquitous. And, as I’ve seen in my research and coaching, it knows no bounds of income, education, or ambition.

If you do decide to quit, make sure it’s for the right reason: because you want to. Not because you’re “only breaking even.” Breaking even for a few years might be worth it, compared to the (probably) greater long-term cost to your career and compensation of leaving the workforce until the kids are in middle school. Even re-entering the workforce at all can be daunting after a few years outside of it. If it's your employer that's the problem, look for other jobs. And if and when you interview for a different position, do not reveal your (mom-penalized) former salary (some states have made it illegal for employers to ask), as that will only perpetuate your personal wage gap.

You may also feel tempted to work for yourself. Mom culture at the moment fetishizes this idea. It sounds pretty good—not working for the man, and choosing your hours. But self-employment is a financial risk that’s only worth taking if you’ve got plentiful resources and contacts. Two safer bets:

• Start that passion-project work on the side until you’ve built your skills and new network, and use the proceeds to save a cushion that lets you walk away from your job comfortably.

• Find other parts of your job that fulfill you by shaking off the tasks that are beneath your pay grade. Surprisingly, lots of mothers I’ve interviewed find new motivation and status by taking on bigger-picture tasks.

Most of all, call people out on their biases, which are often well-intended. Practice this sentence: “I appreciate your sensitivity to my new circumstance, but please don’t count me out—I’d always like the option to decide whether to take on more work.”

Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of The Fifth Trimester consulting, which helps businesses retain women by supporting new motherhood. She is also the author of “The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby.”

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