Study: The ‘motherhood penalty’ exists even if you’re not a mother yet

New research shows that married women without children are often less attractive job candidates when up against women with older children.

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Married, childless women face their own type of motherhood penalty, a new, large-scale study found. The “motherhood penalty” refers to women finding that becoming working mothers often leads to decreased pay (sometimes from working fewer hours), being promoted less, and other disadvantages in the workplace.

New research, published this month by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics based in Bonn, Germany, shows that married women without children are often less attractive job candidates when up against women with older children – at least for part-time work. Why? Because of the risk that they may get pregnant and have children, foisting unwanted costs and loss of productivity onto an employer.


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Researchers send out 9,000 job applications for fictional candidates, all aged 30, to part-time jobs across Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

The women’s’ characteristics were varied across applications.  Their fictional women’s stats were listed as single and childless, married and childless, married with young children, and married with older children. (This information is standard to include on resumes in the above countries.) Resumes from men were also sent out.

Researchers found that for part-time jobs, women with older children received a higher response rate than other groups of women – such as women with young children and married women without children.

“Parents of older children appear to be ideal candidates” to employers, researchers concluded, due to the fact that they were unlikely to become pregnant again and because their childcare schedule was more predictable, requiring fewer absences.

Married women with two older children were 13% more likely to receive a callback than a married childless woman.

The single life

When childless married women went up against childless single women, the childless married women had a 4-6% lower callback rate.

“Women without children applying for a part-time job may be perceived as planning to become mothers soon – especially if they are married,” researchers wrote.

These advantages and disadvantages disappeared for full-time job applications, partly due to cultural reasons – in the German-speaking countries included, part-time work is considered to be work for women juggling family obligations. In applying for full-time work, it is assumed mothers applying for full-time work have childcare arrangements firmly in place – and possibly that women planning on having children might not be applying for full-time work.

Regardless, the discrimination against married childless women found in the research is remarkable because it shows that women can be faulted in the workplace not just for being a mother, but for looking like you might someday be one.


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.