Women play a vital role in the future success of the technology and data industry, and returners in particular hold the invaluable skills and experiences that can help the sector grow. Unfortunately, taking time out of work for maternity leave too often counts against even the highest-performing female employees, even if they have directly relatable skills that could transform the business.

The motherhood penalty refers to the systematic disadvantage experienced by mothers in the working world which often sees women leaving the tech industry altogether, or results in lower salaries and stunted career prospects. The idea highlights a significant aspect of the gender pay disparity, where mothers encounter a large decrease in their earnings and professional opportunities because of structural hurdles linked to motherhood.

What are the contributing factors to the motherhood penalty?

Societal biases and gender stereotypes significantly contribute to the motherhood penalty, with preconceived expectations of women’s caregiving roles often leading to assumptions that mothers are less committed to their careers. This has been coined the ‘maternal wall bias’ and typically comes from colleagues and managers.

In Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) specifically, a study found that 28 percent of new parents leave full-time work after having a baby. Forty-three percent of women, compared to 23 percent of men choose to switch fields, transition to part-time, or leave work altogether. These findings show that women are more likely to reduce their work hours or leave the workforce compared to men.

A further study supported this claim. Researchers found there to be an assumption that the families of women who work suffer as a consequence. There was a common expectation that men were primarily responsible for earning and providing for their families, while women were expected to take care of household duties.

This ‘maternal wall bias’ can contribute to many mothers facing interruptions in their careers due to taking time off to care for their children, or maternity leave. These career breaks add to the motherhood penalty, hindering continuous career progression and skills development.

The lack of family-friendly policies in business often leads mothers to seek part-time or flexible schedules to balance their professional and caregiving responsibilities. While these arrangements are sometimes essential for work-life balance and caring duties, particularly for single parents, this can result in reduced earnings and limited access to opportunities, hindering women’s career advancements.

How does the motherhood penalty impact the gender pay gap?

The PwC’s Women in Work Index suggests that achieving gender pay equality in OECD countries may take around 50 years. This means that a young woman entering the working world at 18 years old will not see equal pay in her working lifetime. Despite the significant pressure on CEOs to enhance diversity, we have seen a widening gap in pay disparity.

Data collected by the UK government in 2022 shows that in tech, 91.1 percent of companies pay their male employees more than their female staff, putting the tech industry’s gender pay gap at 16 percent. The national average, according to data from that same year, sits at 11.6 percent.

Furthermore, a 2023 study from data recruitment company Harnham found that despite the number of women working in the UK’s data industry increasing by 2 percent that year, the gender pay gap grew from 6 percent to 16 percent over that same period.

The motherhood penalty plays a significant role in contributing to the gender pay gap, highlighting the difference between the earnings of mothers compared to their pre-motherhood earnings or the earnings of men and women without children. This decline in hourly wages directly contributes to the pay gap across various sectors and countries.

Not only that, but the additional career hiatus that accompanies taking time off for childbirth and childcare reduces the number of years of work experience which can ultimately lower job prospects and put women at a disadvantage.

How can businesses work to solve the motherhood penalty?

Organizations must emphasize supportive return to work policies and provide training to help returners bridge their transition back to the workplace. This not only boosts retention in the industry but also provides outstanding role models for the younger generation setting out on their careers, acting as an inspiration to remove stereotypes. Barriers must be broken down when it comes to maternity leave and organizations must prioritize supporting returners back to work to harness their fresh perspectives and wealth of skills.

Especially given the rapid pace of change in a sector such as technology, it’s important to provide training programs that can help returners quickly catch up with evolving trends. Even for the typical maternity leave duration, lots can happen in areas such as AI, and organizations must ensure staff don’t return overwhelmed and can learn the skills they need to re-acclimatize to the workplace.

Implementing inclusive policies can support employees through various life stages, including parenthood. Ensuring that maternity and paternity leave policies are comprehensive and offer adequate time off work with job security can make this less stressful for employees and also sends the message as an organization that you value the diversity of the workforce.

By bringing in inclusive policies it ensures equal opportunities for career advancement, irrespective of gender, parental status, or background. Evaluating performance based on merit and skill rather than assumptions about commitments related to caregiving responsibilities can give women a stronger chance at advancing their careers.

Lastly, fostering transparency in salary structures eliminates gender-based salary disparities. Consistently assessing and disclosing salary information guarantees that all employees, particularly mothers, receive fair compensation for the skills they contribute to the business. Conducting an annual gender pay gap analysis and openly sharing the results, helps to eradicate any pay disparity and makes it an open conversation.

Addressing the motherhood penalty requires effort from businesses to implement inclusive policies and provide support for returners, ensuring fair compensation and equal opportunities for career advancement regardless of gender or parental status.