Parenthood penalty: mothers paid 3 per cent less per child while fathers face stigma for paternity leave

A 16-year study reveals mothers face discrimination at work and are paid 3 per cent less per child. At the same time, the parenthood penalty strikes fathers, especially in the bias around their taking shared parental leave.

Mothers are paid 3 per cent less for every child they have compared to their female colleagues who do not have children, according to new research from Université Paris-Saclay. Fathers on the other hand are left unscathed by parenthood in France, but they also don’t enjoy any special privileges either.

Lionel Wilner, director of graduate studies at engineering and statistics school ENSAE, founding member of Université Paris-Saclay, studied 16 years of data from organisations in the French private sector between 1995 and 2011 to uncover these findings.

He separated the effect of childbirth from other firm-specific wage determinants, and accounted for full-time and part-time work, to find that the difference between mothers and non-mothers is approximated a 3 per cent lower hourly wage.

The effect was found to be more pronounced after the birth of the first child.

Wilner finds that human capital depreciation – an often misused measure of the economic value of an employee’s skill set – is to blame, alongside discrimination against mothers at work. Mothers can be allocated a role with less risky assignments, so are less likely to receive bonuses or more likely to become trapped in low-wage trajectories. Men do not experience any loss after childbirth, but do not enjoy any benefit suggested by previous research. This indicates that the so-called fatherhood premium has been eroded.

“Gender inequalities persist within households, in terms of the share of domestic work or bargaining power, but they also persist within firms,” says Wilner. “The gender pay gap, occupational gender segregation and the glass ceiling are the most striking examples – but an obvious example of gender inequality is related to childbirth. The motherhood penalty accounts for noticeable hourly wage differences following childbirth.

“This is both unfair and inefficient. It requires further public intervention, including campaigns against discrimination, development of on-the-job childcare, and extension of paternity leave. A paternity leave of the same duration as maternity leave would bring down this gender gap.”

Kate Headley, director of HR and diversity consultancy, the Clear Company, believes Wilner’s research confirms what many commentators have long suspected – that rifts in the gender pay gap can be directly related to motherhood. “Organisations need to create an inclusive culture to which equality and diversity are fundamental if they truly want to address gender inequality in the workplace. A reliance on targets or quotas to improve diversity and inclusion without a focus on fostering cultural change, will only perpetuate this issue, and risks putting mothers at an even greater disadvantage.”

Slow pick-up of shared parental leave

When it comes to the UK, shared parental leave has reportedly done little to deliver equality for working parents.

A joint study by My Family Care and law firm Hogan Lovells revealed that 60 per cent of HR Directors had received none, to just a few requests to take up shared parental leave.  The biggest barrier to change was identified as the cultural perception that an extended period of time off for a father is frowned upon, with 41 per cent saying they believe it would career limiting.

“These results reveal just how effective shared parental leave has been so far and answers the question – has it been the cultural change that people were all clamouring for.  The answer is not yet but the future looks very bright with many companies enhancing their paternity leave in line with their maternity benefits and 38 per cent of HRs seeing momentum building already,” says Ben Black, director at My Family Care. “However, if we are going to reach true gender equality in the workplace, it is fathers in leadership positions that need to be open about balancing their work and family and aren’t afraid to break the mould of their predecessors.  The most important revelation to come out of the debate was the need for visible role models; to position fathers who are taking SPL at the moment as a shining example to inspire others and help remove the taboo associated with taking time off to care for your new child.”

Jo Broadbent, counsel at Hogan Lovells acknowledges that the introduction of shared parental leave was one of the most ground-breaking changes in employee legislation of the last ten years, but its impact remains to be seen. “While uptake has been relatively slow, the key thing is that individuals now have a choice; where new parents can discuss amongst themselves just how they would like to share parenting responsibilities and plan accordingly,” she says. “Once the stigma surrounding fathers taking time off has been removed and word of the success of shared parental leave is spread, we anticipate employers having a lot more interest from their staff.”

Large corporates lead the way

Accenture has 10,000 employees in the UK. Tony Horan, head of human capital strategy, leadership, diversity and inclusion at Accenture says take up of shared parental leave across the company has so far been encouraging with 22 applicants from a range of career levels taking an average of 18 to 20 weeks off. He added that shared parental leave is a vital element in adapting to the changing expectations of the workforce.

“The younger generation of people coming into the workplace expect a better balance between their careers and their personal lives. Many new fathers and mothers expect an equal chance to be involved in the upbringing of their young children. It’s important that we adapt to that. We believe that having a bold and effective shared parental leave policy will become an increasingly powerful tool in retaining our top talent while attracting the best people to Accenture,” Horan says.

“We are on the cusp of a big social change that will reduce the inequality of having children on the careers of mothers. Making childcare in the early years common to both parents will have a positive impact on the numbers of women employed at all levels in organisations.”

Citi also has 10,000 employees in the UK with offices based in Canary Wharf, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast.  5 per cent of these become new parents each year.  In the six months since the launch of SPL, 11 employees have applied for SPL, taking an average of 16 weeks’ leave. Citi anticipates a doubling of applicants moving forward due to the enhanced benefits that it offers their staff.


Eleanor Silverio, Shell UK’s benefits policy lead says one of the firm’s key drivers is fairness to both the company and its employees, which is why the firm started by checking that its maternity policy was still fair and current. “As a result, we re-launched that on 1st April (2015) and then shared parental leave shortly after.  To get the message across, we organised a number of webcasts, updated our online portals, put posters up and provided line managers and HR with toolkits to ensure they were prepared for the changes,” she says.

“So far we have only had a limited uptake, however learnings from our Norwegian colleagues, where they have a similar, but slightly different scheme, suggest that it is a slow burn.  Feedback from those who have taken advantage of the new scheme is that they welcome the discontinuous nature of the leave which enables them to still be involved with key business engagements as necessary, although this has been one of the key challenges from a systems perspective.  They also welcome the equity of the policy and perceive it as a generous offering.”

For Shell, Silverio believes it is a new dawn for equality. “(We) are happy to be able to position shared parental leave alongside our other ‘agility’ benefits. As the needs of employees evolve, we have to continue to find ways of ‘making work work’, not only to add to employees’ EVP, but also to give benefit to the company in terms of increased engagement and flexibility of our workforce.”

While shared parental has been a slow burner for these companies, the onus is on both employers and employees to change the perception and cultural biases surrounded working parents and the division of childrearing responsibilities.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

Related Topics