Jordan Jayson was five months pregnant when she got a job working as a publisher at a digital media company. She had voluntarily told her potential employer about her pregnancy during the hiring process and was met with support and congratulations.
She gave birth to her first child, Reed, in December 2015. But as Jayson’s maternity leave came to an end the following spring, she worried about how she would balance the relentless pace of her industry with the demands of new motherhood.
“Being a parent is what I signed up for, and I didn’t want to feel like I was ‘outsourcing’ parenting,” Jayson told Al Jazeera. “Yet I was not willing to give up the years I had dedicated to my career. I felt very guilty if I was distracted by work when I was with my baby.”
Jayson – who lives in New York City in the United States – asked her boss if she could scale back to four days a week, and volunteered to take a 20 percent pay cut. But it didn’t translate into 20 percent less work.
“My work ethic didn’t change. I often took phone calls or meetings on the ‘fifth day’ if something important was going on,” Jayson, 42, told Al Jazeera.
Four years on, Jayson says she’s still being penalised financially for becoming a parent, even though the quality of her work hasn’t suffered.
“I have not come near to making the amount of money I made before I got pregnant, because I don’t want to sacrifice being there for my children when they need me,” she said.
Jayson’s experience is not unique. In fact, it is so common that researchers refer to it as the “motherhood penalty” – a term used to describe the hit in wages, perceived competence and professional opportunities that come after a working woman has children. And the effect deepens with every child that women have.
But new research suggests the motherhood penalty can strike much earlier – before a woman even becomes pregnant.
For Jayson, the motherhood penalty kicked in after she gave birth and returned to work. But discrimination can strike even when women are job hunting.
Researchers led by Sascha Becker at the University of Warwick hypothesised that much of the discrimination mothers and women of childbearing age face in the workplace relates to the general perception that childcare is more likely to fall to women than men.
To test that theory, Becker and his team sent out approximately 9,000 fake job applications to employers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, altering criteria including applicants’ marital status and the age of their children.
It is illegal for companies in those countries to require applicants to divulge that information, but job applicants routinely offer it on a volunteer basis, says Becker.
He and his team found that female applicants for part-time jobs who were listed as married with young children – as well as childless applicants who are married and who could become pregnant – were at a clear disadvantage compared to single, childless applicants.
The findings imply that women who appear poised for motherhood also face discrimination in hiring.
The study also found that women with very young children hit a wall of bias during the hiring stage.
“We find that female applicants with younger children receive fewer callbacks than women with older children,” Becker told Al Jazeera.
The discrimination faced by women seeking part-time work is not surprising, researchers say.
“Applicants to part-time jobs convey a desire to reconcile family duties with work,” the study explained.
“In contrast, applicants to full-time jobs signal that, independent of their family situation, they ‘must have’ childcare arrangements in place, because otherwise, they could not reconcile a full-time job with the logistics of picking up children from daycare or school.”
Becker said one way to redress the problem is for women to stop voluntarily divulging their marital status and their number of children on job applications.
“Women are worried that if they do not provide such information, they will be disadvantaged,” Becker said. “Our results also show that this is not the case, really.”
In the US, 71.5 percent of women with children under the age of 18 were working or looking for work in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the labour force participation rate is lower – 65.1 percent – for mothers of children under the age of six.
And although women’s employment has increased in the European Union overall to 66.6 percent, 19 percent of European women who are not working have left the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities, according to a 2018 EU report. Public policy has yet to foster a suite of initiatives to offset business concerns about employing mothers.
While countries in Europe offer generous maternity leave, employers are left to shoulder the cost of maternity cover, which can cast mothers and women of childbearing age as a drag on the bottom line.
To redress that, Becker advocates tax-financed “fertility insurance” to have the state pick up a portion of the cost of maternity cover. “This would allow the whole of society to share the employment-adjustment costs of fertility,” he explained.
The US has even further to go, because it is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate that employers offer paid maternity leave, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The US Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 is supposed to protect women from such bias. But data suggests it is still rife. The number of pregnancy discrimination-related complaints received by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose 46 percent between 1997 and 2011 (these are the latest statistics the commission has published).
Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St Louis, interviewed 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the US for her book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.
“Universal paid family leave would also go a long way in equalising things,” Collins told Al Jazeera, adding that a lack of supportive family policies is already having real, negative economic impacts on the US, where fertility rate has now hit a 32-year low.
“Faced with the struggle of making motherhood work, some women are simply opting not to have children at all,” Collins said.
A cultural shift around gender roles is also needed, she says, given that researchers have found men who become parents receive a wage boost – a so-called “fatherhood premium”.
This stems, Collins says, from the “outdated and problematic idea that mothers are primarily responsible for the domestic sphere, including caregiving and housework, and men are primarily responsible for breadwinning outside the home”.
And perception can force women into a reality for which they never bargained. Jayson said that her family was fortunate to be able to live comfortably on her reduced salary, thanks to her husband’s earning power. But, she added, “It was the first time I felt truly financially dependent on my husband, which was not something I had ever pictured for myself.”
Now a mother of two, Jayson said she would like to see workplace culture shift to become more supportive of families, children and parenthood.
“Working and parenting both tend to be stressful activities with no boundaries,” she said. “Together, what should feel purposeful and fulfilling instead becomes relentless.”