Five Small Ways You Can Combat the Motherhood Penalty

The ABA recently released research from its inquiry into why women leave the law.  The study revealed issues all too familiar to many practicing female attorneys--discrimination, salary dissatisfaction, caregiving responsibilities that are incompatible with the pace of practice.  And while the ABA’s efforts are ongoing, I was surprised to see a lack of focus on what numerous other studies have dubbed the “motherhood penalty”--or the earnings (and corresponding promotion) gap between mothers and non-parents in the workplace.  Research shows a significant decline in a woman's earnings after the birth of her first child, with that disparity continuing throughout her career.  Because of this stark difference in the earnings of mothers and non-parents, many researchers are beginning to argue that the workplace gender gap is more accurately described as a childbearing penalty.  What’s more, the research shows that fathers’ salaries stay put upon the birth of a child, and fatherhood may actually lead to an earnings bonus for men.  The ABA’s preliminary findings are consistent with this research, noting that women named childcare, domestic, and caretaking commitments as reasons women lawyers left the profession.  In future research, however, the ABA should  examine the problem through the lens of motherhood discrimination and not just gender discrimination.  

While studies show that the motherhood penalty has remained constant over time and the ABA’s research shows a continued exodus from woman in law, recent developments leave room for cautious optimism in the legal profession.  For example, about 50 firms have signed on to the “Mansfield Rule” which requires that at least 30 percent of the firm’s candidate pools for any leadership position or promotion must be comprised of women or minorities.  Now, some large clients are beginning to require Mansfield rule participation. Moreover, the UK now mandates disclosure of companies’ gender pay gap, requiring several large U.S. law firms to disclose (and hopefully improve!) large gender pay gaps.  Lastly, and importantly, mothers are starting to lead law firms--including my own--providing invaluable and diverse perspectives at the highest levels of the profession.

And while we all might not be the next female managing partner, there are small but significant actions that we can take to elevate the status of mothers and combat the motherhood penalty in law:

1. Leave loudly. A top PepsiCo executive caused a stir last year when he initiated a Leaders Leaving Loudly policy--simply requesting that when upper management needs leave early, for example to watch a child’s game or performance, they disclose this to their team, rather than sneaking out the back door.  When leaders leave loudly, they’re signaling a knowledge that personal commitments exist and that work flexibility is allowed--and important. Parents benefit from this flexibility (as well as any employee with outside responsibilities) and we should work toward a culture where we don’t need to hide as we use it.

2. Advocate for family-friendly policies.  While a significant motherhood penalty exists worldwide, the countries who have done the most to narrow their gender pay gaps have done so by instituting universal, family-friendly policies, such as paid parental leave and subsidized child care.  In fact, one researcher in the field has found that providing subsidized child care is the most important factor in reducing the motherhood penalty.  Of course, some of these changes would likely need to come at the state or federal level.  But even those of us who may be hesitant to call our elected representatives can lobby our HR offices or benefit committees.  

While the big policies like maternity leave are important, don’t overlook small policies with big impact.  For example, many law firms are beginning to offer Milk Stork, an overnight breastmilk shipping service, as a benefit to new moms.  This simple perk may be the difference that allows a breastfeeding attorney to attend that two-week long, career-defining (and salary-increasing) trial across the country, rather than sitting it out or feeling pressure to stop nursing early.  Small policy changes can be a catalyst for big shifts in equality.

3. Don’t make things worse.  While advocating for family-friendly policies, it’s important to make sure that the new policies don’t actually exacerbate stereotypes and gender inequality.  For example, on her blog Mindful Return, Lori Mihalich-Levin explains why “primary caregiver” policies (or those which give more leave to the parent expected to take more responsibility for the child) may only enforce the assumption that childcare responsibilities should (and do) fall primarily on the shoulders of new mothers and discourage fathers from assuming equal caregiver status early on.  (Moreover, as Estee Lauder recently learned, these policies may also get you sued.)  

4. Celebrate the skills of motherhood.  Discussions attempting to explain why the motherhood penalty exist often focus on motherhood’s perceived detriments to work networks and commitment.  The example is often given of the mother who misses important facetime by skipping happy hour or who burdens her teammates when she has to be out with a sick child.  But what about the benefits that mothers can bring to their teams and the ways in which motherhood and, yes, even maternity leave, can help women grow as professionals and leaders?  Rather than hiding from motherhood at performance review time, it’s critical that we start highlighting our successful contributions to our team derived from motherhood.  After a maternity leave, highlight your successful project handoffs,  delegation, and seamless return.  Motherhood can operate as a benefit to our careers, and we shouldn’t be afraid to make those more explicit at review time.

5. Recruit male advocates.  As you leave loudly, advocate for family-friendly policies, and celebrate parenthood, make sure to encourage the fathers around you to do the same.  After all, we now know that their salaries are far less likely to take a hit from widespread knowledge of their fatherhood, and men’s voices can help us begin to see these issues as family issues, rather than issues specific to motherhood.

While there’s no easy answer to solving the motherhood penalty, by addressing and transforming the culture of caregiver discrimination over time, we can begin to normalize motherhood in our law firms and employers.  I’m hopeful that the ABA will focus on mothers as it continues its research on women in law and provide powerful guidance on best practices for embracing working parenthood.


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