How Not To Fall Victim To “The Motherhood Penalty”


It’s a fact, Ladies. The most fulfilling experience of our lives – nurturing little beings into wonderful adults – is statistically killing our careers. At least that’s what the data says.

According to a 2010 study by Michelle Budig and Melissa Hodges of the Social and Demographic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, “There is a penalty for motherhood across the earnings distribution that persists after inclusion of all variables.” In-other-words, moms at all pay levels make less money and get fewer promotions. And the lower income moms – the ones that can least afford it – pay the highest price.

There’s plenty more depressing data out there, including the ever-presence equal pay gap statistics (women earning 77% of what men in comparable positions do), the fact that female MBAs make on average $4,600 a year less than their male counterparts and the datapoint that 2/3 of male senior managers have children while only 1/3 of females do (as quoted by Sheryl Sandberg, below.)

These stats are enough to make you angry, exhausted or both when you think about your own career and motherhood choices, but I’m here to give you a strategy to deal with it, excel at whatever you choose to do, have your cake and eat it too: ignore the stats and then don’t.

Here’s the ignore the stats part: I believe these data are true, but they are looking at only one slice of the universe of the modern woman's reality. Here are the things they don’t speak to, and that it’s very possible this is your reality.

Be Smart – Don’t Play The Game

  • These stats don’t count entrepreneurial women jumping out of the broken system, and in fact the entrepreneurial women’s ranks are swelling (we’re more than 40% now).
  • Women – especially younger women – are looking at their careers and lives as one integrated whole, and they’re seeking the entrepreneurial lifestyle to help them blend the joys of fulfilling work and life – including motherhood. Many of us that believe we can have "it all" are simply opting out of the “up or out” mentality and choosing “out” because we want a better life. Despite its challenges, according to female entrepreneurs, the rewards of entrepreneurship outweigh the demands.

Be Smart – Play the Game

  • With or without kids there are tons of capable, confident and powerful women who have learned to adapt to the corporate environment. Studies show that women who master both masculine and feminine management styles are promoted and given raises even more than men.
  • So what if there are 33% fewer of us with kids in the managerial ranks? That means 33% of us ARE there. Maybe you’re one of them.
  • If you don’t want to opt out of the corporate ladder scrabble, then learn to play the game. Learn to recruit highly placed mentors and be assertive like the guys do.

This TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg is fantastic advice for women who want to stay in the scrabble game. Watch it and share it.

Be In Your Own Power – Your Kids And The World Will Thank You

Whether you’re in or out of “the system,” you’re only a stat if you allow yourself to be. Bottom line - you’re in charge of your own life and you’re responsible for the “you” you bring home to your children and take back to the office.

If you’re new to motherhood, you’re starting to realize that you have great power to affect your children, how they view the world and – most importantly – how they view themselves. And you don’t even have to do anything to exercise this power. To them, you are powerful simply because you exist and are their mother. Who you are is part of who they will become 

Guess what? You don’t have to be a mom to access this power. Sure, kids are extra-sensitive to it so it’s easier for us to see the mom effect on them, but it’s a human power this is true for everyone – at home and at work. No matter who you are, everything you do and don’t do affects all those around you. When you learn to manage this power you can do anything you want, accomplish anything you set your sights on, and have your cake and eat it too. And if you happen to be someone’s mom, you teach your children how to access their own internal power just by being you.

When you’re balanced in your personal power, there is no wrong choice you can make about whether you stay home, work full time or try to split the difference. Your choice is the right choice and you won’t second guess it. You succeed at whatever you choose to do because you see the world, your work, yourself and your family for what they are – stripping away the stories and the illusions (including the ones the stats tell us) and dealing with things as they are. When you’re in your personal power, you are more effective at everything you do.

Stats can’t measure this power you carry within you. Only you can.

Now, here’s the don’t ignore the stats part. If you’re a woman, there are other stats that say you have the power to change the world – yes, by virtue of your gender. Numerous studies now show that more women in leadership positions, measurably help a company’s performance and increase group intelligence.

So no matter what you do with the stats and the things they can’t measure, it all comes down to you. You’re a woman, possibly a mom, and in possession of tremendous power. No matter where you are in your career; no matter what choices you have, are and will be making about motherhood; and no matter how powerful you do or don’t feel at the moment, dont hide yourself. Get out there are live freely and unapologetically. Make your choices, live with them and evolve them as you learn what works and what doesn’t. Don’t second-guess yourself. Surround yourself with other women that shine your powerful light back at you. (Yes, it’s best to let go of the ones that hide the mirror.) Learn to forgive. Don’t be shy. Be YOU in your full power.

The stats say you will more than make a difference. The stats say you will change the world, one child, one family, one colleague, one meeting, one company at a time.

What are you waiting for?

pregnant and leader

Credit Image: Torsten Manger on Flickr

Dana Theus

InPower Leadership Development & Coaching- Helping you live into your purpose through your work. Sign up for my weekly 1-minute coaching newsletter.


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