While children benefit by the care and supervision of a full-time stay-at-home mother, the spouse benefits in terms of an unencumbered career and well-kept home, the society benefits through a pipeline of future talent, the person driving all of this loses out

Child penalty, also known as the motherhood penalty, refers to the adverse impact that giving birth to children has on the wages earned by women.

As a woman, a mother, a practising diversity consultant, it pains me to acknowledge, that women get penalised for bearing and rearing children. These children will be contributors to the economy of tomorrow. So while the children benefit by the care and supervision of a full time stay at home mother, the spouse benefits in terms of an unencumbered career and well-kept home, the society benefits through a pipeline of future talent, the person driving all of this loses out.

Do we not see the unfairness in this situation? And what can we do about it?

What is motherhood penalty and why does this happen?

The first step is to decode the reasons behind this phenomenon.

Well, firstly, there is biology. It’s only women who can give birth and lactate, so that’s one irrefutable fact.

Then, the second part is this entire social conditioning that puts the primary responsibility of bringing up children fair and square at the doorstep of women. The social conditioning defines gender roles as follows- Man is the primary bread winner and Woman is the primary care giver. Hence it’s considered normal for women to take a post-maternity break, or devote less time to their career when their children are young. Women are also expected to devote less time to their careers when their children appear for critical exams or when children face career decisions and so on.

Thirdly, the entire issue of unpaid work. A working mother goes home, after a full day’s work and puts in significant effort in house hold activities, including child care, usually much more than the man in the house. One does need to balance house and work, this again leads to a compromised career, elevated stress levels in working mothers. Multiple sources estimate unpaid work constitutes around 36% of global GDP.

The reasons are easy to comprehend, but have direct and indirect implications.

How does motherhood penalty impact careers?

The career breaks and career choices taken by mothers impact career continuity, and therefore impact the income levels.

Next, the questions on ‘career intentionality’ i.e. the intentionality of women pursuing careers while navigating motherhood, leads to reduced employment opportunities, very often loss of increments and promotions and normalised ratings. Normalised ratings again suppress the income levels that otherwise performing individuals would have received.

These further impact the morale and zeal of women to persevere and continue with their careers, thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle.

Research shows childless women earn more than women who have children. Henry Kieven from Princeton showed that even in liberal Denmark women pay a financial penalty for having children. The child penalty is considered the primary reason behind the gender pay gap and talent attrition among women which leads to lower participation by women in the workforce. In India, a woman earns nearly 30% less than a man with similar qualifications. In North America, the earning gap is similar.

This understanding is linear and direct. What’s disturbing is a ‘mindset’ that I have observed in my various interactions. At a recent focussed group discussion, one of the respondents came up with an interesting question. She said- a. There are very few women at senior positions in my organisation. I can count them on fingertips b. The ladies who are senior positions are either single or divorced or do not have children. Does this mean that in order to grow, I have to give up my intention of motherhood?

This has a much larger and disturbing implication on our societal fabric!

So, what is the solution?

We need a practical approach to this deep and complex issue.

The first step is to acknowledge it. This is a fact. It happens. We need to address it.Women dropping out of workforce is impacting the economy adversely as well as the social fabric, and we all are at the receiving end.As per research by international bodies and think tanks, If women participated in the economy at par with men, India could increase its GDP by 27% over a period of time. At present, women contribute a mere 17% to the country’s GDP, well below the global average of 37%.Clearly, there is a need to ensure that working women remain a part of the Indian workforce and grow in numbers too.

We cannot ignore biology, and hence, practical solutions such as offering time and resources to help mothers settle back into work post maternity, Child care facilities, lactation facilities might be good places for organisations to start with.Introducing policies and guidelines that help managers manage diverse teams will be a good step forward. For example, helping the managers get temporary resources while a team member is on maternity leave might ease some of their pain and make them more amenable to hiring, retaining and growing women.If implemented, such policies will diminish the professional penalty paid by mothers making them more likely to be hired, retained, and prosper.

Then comes addressing the mindsets arising out of social conditioning.

As women do tend to take a break or change careers to lesser working hours/ flexi hours, once they have children, men too believe that as the primary bread winner, their priority is to provide for the family. So long hours, extensive travel, global postings, do everything to do well, sometimes at the cost of family, physical and mental well being. This in turn simply perpetuates the gender norms and stereotypes.

It’s important to realise that children are equal responsibilities of both the parents. And they can bring up good citizens while pursuing career aspirations. That the mother has to take a career break is not essential to bringing up good children, taking paternity leaves or taking offs to help with childcare should also be an accepted norm.

Organisations can play a positive role in breaking these gender norms and stereotypes by encouraging conversations that help all employees- all genders voice their opinions and concerns arising out of life stage navigation and child care issues, engage in dialogue and problem solving. Working mothers taking off around exam time should not be looked down upon and not be scoffed on. Fathers taking paternity leave and actively participating in child care should be encouraged. All employees should be encouraged to leave office on time, irrespective of gender.

Not hiring women, or not welcoming a returning working mother are not solutions. For women, not tabling their insecurities after maternity is not an answer. Dialogues, problem solving and articulating policies and guidelines would be a positive step forward.

It’s going to be a long and difficult journey. Taking that first step is important by all….by men and women, by the government by introducing well thought through policy changes, and organisations playing their role through inclusive and enabling policies and practices, driving compliance of the law in letter and in spirit.

(Sonica Aron is Founder and Managing Partner, Marching Sheep)