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Women's Careers Suffer a ‘Motherhood Penalty’—Even if They Don’t Have Kids

Same degrees, similar qualifications, different career outcomes. Why the glass ceiling is alive and well.

by Anne Gaviola
Mar 18 2019, 3:00pm

Photos via Shutterstock

The odds are stacked against you if you’re a woman in the workplace, in ways you might not even realize.

The so-called “mommy penalty” is the well-documented collateral damage to a woman’s career if she chooses to have a family and take a break from work. But what about young women who may be suffering a “motherhood penalty” even if they haven’t had a kid––and may never have a family? There’s evidence to suggest they are less likely to become managers simply because they have a uterus.

A recent RBC report revealed that between the ages of 25 and 29, men are twice as likely to be promoted to management positions compared to their female colleagues. This chasm widens as women get older––it seems as though they can’t catch up once their male counterparts get that head start. There are other factors too––like the time that women take off from work to have children. But this important advantage that men have at the beginning of a career leads to lots of advantages down the road too.

This may explain why only one out of every three senior-level managers are women in Canada. In the US, that ratio is closer to one in ten people in the top jobs at the biggest publicly-traded companies.

So why are women overrepresented at the bottom of the corporate ladder and way underrepresented at the top––especially in fields dominated by men, like banking, tech and commerce? Experts we talked to say that there are gender differences in negotiation (men tend to be more aggressive on this front, which gets them more money), maternity leaves taking a bite out of career momentum, and the way tools like an MBA degree lead to different outcomes for men and women, as well as subtler things that suggest a double-standard.

Glass Ceiling
The lack of women in the upper echelons of the corporate ladder is tied to the fact that gains women have made on the gender pay front have stalled in recent years, after making noticeable progress in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s––a collective “glass ceiling” moment. Women are getting paid less (they make 87 cents for every dollar earned by a man) because they’re getting promoted less, and the cycle continues.

This is an area of interest and expertise for Leanne Son Hing who is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph. Son Hing told VICE “You can call it sexism or discrimination, stereotypes about what men and women are like and what a manager is like. All of these can then affect people’s decision-making, so that men can seem like better candidates,” she says.

These preconceived notions run deep and one thing that women between the ages of 25 and 29 have in common is that they’re in their “prime childbearing” years. Although Canadian women are waiting longer to start a family, with most women waiting until they are well into their 30s to start (the average age for having a first child is 29.2 across Canada and 30 in urban centres like Toronto), the perception among the people doing the hiring is that motherhood––and the associated time out––could be imminent.

Mommy Penalty
Michelle Budig is a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts and has done extensive research on the “motherhood penalty,” which she has calculated at about four percent, per child, in lost income over the course of a woman’s career. That number accounts and adjusts for things like the fact that some women work less hours and factors in career breaks (without these considerations the penalty is about seven percent per child). Budig told VICE that those who can least afford it are hit hardest. “The wage penalty appears to be deeper for women who are low-income and average earners.”

There is evidence, including the management gap, that suggests the penalty for procreating isn’t limited to mothers. Budig points to research that shows European countries with longer maternity leaves likely incentivize employers not to hire or promote women.

Instead, they’re put on a “mommy track” rather than a “management track,” meaning a position that isn’t overly impacted if it needs to be filled temporarily or remains vacant for a while. In the study, employers chose not to train or prepare most of their young female workers for leadership roles within the company because “they couldn’t predict which women would step out for a period of time to have kids,” which she says is playing out in workplaces on this continent as well.

On the flipside, Budig’s research shows that men’s careers get a boost when they have children––call it a “fatherhood bonus” in the form of a six percent increase in earnings once they have a child that they live with. Although, not all men see their careers enhanced equally: African-American men, regardless of their education level, saw the smallest “daddy bonus.”

Budig explains that “fatherhood advantages men who are already advantaged in the workplace because it’s another signal of what we call ‘hegemonic masculinity.’ What’s rewarded in the workforce is typically men who are white. College-educated men who show intellectual and cognitive skills are more highly-rewarded in the American workforce.”

A work environment that consistently promotes a specific type of man––over other men who don’t fit that narrow definition and women––is an example of a place where hegemonic masculinity is encouraged and celebrated. If you look at the power players in the corporate world, they are typically white men.

One of the most effective ways to level the playing field is to share the career burden of kids. Research shows that equal access to parental leave can significantly reduce the motherhood penalty, which in turn helps bridge the gender pay gap and may help move women off the “mommy track” and onto the “leadership track.”

This is significant because starting this week, "daddy days" kick in across Canada (with the exception of Quebec because the province has its own program), allowing fathers to take an additional five to eight weeks of the parental sharing benefit which was announced in the 2018 federal budget. In a statement, Maryam Monsef, the Minister for the Status of Women wrote that this measure is designed to create a "more gender-equal Canada, while providing the opportunity to reflect on the fact that child care duties still fall disproportionately on mothers."

But will fathers (or non-birthing partners) take the extra leave? Currently across the country, mothers claim 85 percent of total parental leave. That's not the case in Quebec though, which has had is its unique parental leave plan in place since 2006 and 81 percent of non-birthing partners have used it to take time off work. Proponents say the key is the financial incentive to use it, or lose it, which is how Canada's new "daddy days" are set up. Millennials are driving the increase in shared parental benefit use.

MBA Boys Club
One specific kind of higher-education is billed as a must-have for certain leadership roles is an MBA. But Son Hing points to the fact that men and women who invest the time and money to get an MBA, have very different career outcomes. This is significant, because this is a self-selecting group of ambitious people. According to Son Hing, the evidence is clear that “the young men are more likely to get promoted, more likely to have a qualitative change in the work that they’re doing, more likely to move into a management position, more likely to make more money, compared with women who get the exact same [MBA] degree.”

A big factor is that MBAs are typically held by people in male-dominated industries such as consulting, finance, tech, and engineering. Son Hing says women face a particularly steep uphill battle in institutions with an entrenched “boys club” mentality. “There may be people within the organization or the culture that exists within the organization, which is competitive and dominance is status, and power-oriented.”

According to Son Hing, the antidote to this is a high-ranking male ally, specifically a powerful mentor within the company who will consistently go to bat for a female colleague as well as introduce her to and integrate her within his network. Although it is beneficial to have a woman as a mentor too, she says the key to breaking into the "boys club" is with an entrenched member. "If you look at the majority of the decision-making roles within organizations, it’s still men." Son Hing says until there are significantly more women calling the shots in fields like law and business, the biggest benefit for a woman trying to climb the corporate ladder is "a powerful male mentor. It’s that combination in a male-dominated field that particularly leads to career payoffs."

RBC’s Deputy Chief Economist Dawn Desjardins told VICE the stats show that women between the ages of 25 and 29 are in need of particular attention. “Policy has to be developed whether it’s a mandated thing or really just a mentoring system that companies can put in place that can get that number of women in managerial positions up, and equal to men.”

Desjardins is a bit of an anomaly on Bay Street, where the ranks of economists, especially at the senior level, are overwhelmingly male. She says she has had several informal mentors over the years. “These individuals helped me gain confidence and provided advice at critical moments in my career when I was considering different opportunities.”

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