SFU professor discusses “the motherhood penalty” in the workplace

PHOTO: Camylla Battani / Unsplash

Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

“My focus this [International Women’s Day] was to debunk the language of choice that is so often used to frame how women navigate their impossible slate of labours,” said SFU sociology professor Dr. Amanda Watson in an email interview with The Peak. 

This includes the “motherhood penalty” which “refers to gaps in pay, stigma, the long-term consequences of inadequate benefits, and their absence in leadership.”

The wage gap between men and women persists in our culture predominantly because women commonly seek flexible work arrangements so they can look after their children, Watson said. Society often frames this obligation as a choice for mothers in our culture — the language of choice for working women is “more meaningfully imagined as a strategic way to cope with sexist labour divisions and family precarity,” explained Watson. 

Watson acknowledged the “motherhood penalty” is much greater for Indigenous women, women of colour, queer and trans women, and women with disabilities since they “already experience negative perceptions of their competence in male-dominated workplaces.” 

This extends to young women — who may not want children at all, but are consistently seen as potential mothers, Watson said. The result is being “judged as less committed to their jobs on top of sexist and racist stereotypes about women’s competence and commitment.”

Watson said to take International Women’s Day to “think about how to educate ourselves about our unchecked biases and how these play out in organizations and society at large.

“Workplace organizational culture can do a lot to destigmatize family-friendly policies, especially by having senior leadership equitable culture,” said Watson. 

She explained part of this social shift should include men in leadership roles being mindful of scheduling meetings and opportunities for business development to take place at appropriate times for all employees. 

“There is so much that can be done to shift both the ‘motherhood penalty’ in paid work and the unequitable division of unpaid work in families that has been laid bare by the [COVID-19] pandemic,” said Watson.

“If I had a magic wand, the first thing I would do is launch comprehensive child care programming that is universally accessible, affordable, high-quality, and diverse.” Watson explained this has proven to “immediately reduce inequality between women and families.” 

She reported “several studies in the US and Canada have now indicated that single mothers have been hit harder than other parents in the pandemic with respect to job loss.”

This is because stay-at-home measures resulted in children’s facilities — daycare, childcare, or school — being greatly affected in March 2020. “Since women are less likely than men to work in jobs that can be done remotely and [single-parent] households are far more likely to be headed by women, single mothers were particularly hit,” said Watson. 

Throughout the pandemic, the federal government of Canada altered their qualification requirements for parental leave, said Watson. She added, “I think it will be interesting to see if we come out of this crisis with the much-needed updates to the policy that scholars and policy experts have been calling for.”

In relation to International Women’s Day, Watson said it’s an “anti-racist, feminist, New Year’s Eve, where we take a look at where we have come in the struggle for equity over the past year, and recommit ourselves to the struggle for the year to come.” 

Watson’s first book, The Juggling Mother: Coming Undone in the Age of Anxiety, is available now. She is currently working on her next book, researching the Birthstrike.