The Motherhood Penalty

There’s a common viewpoint that mothers are less ambitious than non-mothers. It’s an assumption ingrained into our society that when a woman has a baby her priorities change.

Decision Making on My Behalf

I was on the receiving end of this assumption in 2015 when I returned to work after my second maternity leave and wanted to apply for a promotion. I was met with, “it involves travel and you have two children already, so you won’t want to do that.”

Case closed, end of discussion. It was decided for me. Obviously that just fed by old belief that “I’m not good enough.”

The Nature of Ambition

In my case, yes, my priorities did change but it didn’t make me any less ambitious. If anything, I was more ambitious than ever before.

But the nature of that ambition changed. If I was going to go to work and leave my child in nursery then it better well be something that is meaningful and that I care deeply about.

I know for me things also shifted when I had my daughter Elsie (who is 3 on Sunday)! I was acutely aware of the culture and systems that hold women back and I didn’t want that for her.

The Stats

Mothers lacking career ambition is a common explanation for the UK gender pay gap, which in 2019 was 17.3%. After all, parenthood is a very tricky time and understandably might disrupt careers.

Yet, men’s salaries go up when they have children; fathers earn 21% more than men of the same age without children and fathers with two children earn more than fathers with one child. For mothers, however, it’s the opposite. Mothers earn 7% less than no-mothers and it’s as much as 18 % less for mothers of three children.

This pay penalty for working mothers is commonly referred to as the ‘motherhood penalty.’

Motherhood Penalty

The motherhood penalty is easily explained by the popular media;

  • Mothers “opt-out” of the workplace
  • Choose part-time work over full-time
  • Less committed after having children

Recent research paints a very different story. One of discriminatory behaviour towards mothers that threatened to chip away at their ambition and confidence.

40% of women feel isolated and unsupported on their return to work and 90% of women do not receive support in the form of return to work training.


To add to that, when women return from maternity, they are often excluded from promotion opportunities which delays progress. In the eyes of the employer, they are seen to have just started a new job and have yet to prove themselves, never mind that it’s the same level that they were doing before.

All of these prejudices add up and erode confidence.

We are women. We are ambitious.

We must create the right conditions for women to flourish.

Speak soon,


PS hit reply and tell me if you have been on the receiving end of any prejudices like this at work. All responses will be fully confidential, it’s a safe space to share and be heard.