Can Marissa Mayer Avoid The Motherhood Penalty?

Can Marissa Mayer Avoid The Motherhood Penalty?

Photo of Marissa Mayer (de.wikipedia)

Now that the excitement around Marissa Mayer’s appointment to the Yahoo! CEO post has calmed down somewhat, the world waits eagerly to see how she will turn the company around. She may have a challenging road ahead of her with the turnaround, but one thing that she may be able to avoid is the motherhood penalty.

What is the Motherhood Penalty?

My professional women friends sometimes speak in hushed tones of the compromises that they have had to make in their career after they have children. For example, staying late to network with coworkers is often the first item to disappear from the calendar. Working on weekends also becomes challenging, making it harder to go ‘above and beyond’ as is often expected of white collar professionals.

Trade-offs in balancing family and career are to be expected. What is seldom discussed, however, is the motherhood penalty or the workplace bias that they encounter.

The motherhood penalty refers to the compromised employment conditions that women face as mothers. There are three main components to this penalty:

  1. Wage penalty
  2. Promotion / opportunity penalty
  3. Expectations penalty

The Wage Penalty

The motherhood wage penalty has often been quantified:

  1. Mothers earn about 5% less per child than other US workers, even after controlling for full- or part-time work, race, work experience, and education.
  2. Mother candidates were offered $11,000 less in average starting salary than non-mother candidates, in a study where identical résumés were used.

This penalty has been found in the US and other industrialized countries, and has remained constant over the years. Less pay for the same job is not a trade-off; it is discrimination.

Can Marissa Mayer avoid this wage penalty? Mayer’s $57 million pay package this year will actually make her one of the highest paid technology CEOs in Silicon Valley, even surpassing Meg Whitman’s $16.5 million salary in 2011. Throw in her retention award and other things, and Mayer’s pay package over the next five years could add up to almost $100 million. Not too shabby for a first time CEO and mother. On this count, I would say that Mayer has successfully avoided the wage penalty.

The Promotion / Opportunity Penalty

Working mothers – do you think that your shot at a promotion or new job now is better than, worse than, or about the same as when you were sans child? In the same study where people were shown identical résumés, researchers found that:

  1. Mothers were half as less likely to be promoted over non-mothers.
  2. Mother candidates were 79% less likely to be hired over non-mother candidates.

Marissa Mayer already has the top job at Yahoo!, so it may be that she has also successfully avoided the promotion / opportunity penalty this time. Others are not so lucky. A recent article argues that it is this bias against mothers that has contributed to a large gender gap in academia in sciences and mathematics. In the law profession, According to a recent report from the National Association of Women Lawyers, the incoming class with 50% women quickly trickles down to 15% at the partner level. That number has been unchanged for the last six years, and anecdotally, perhaps for the last twenty years.

Asian mother and child (Jarenwicklund – Stock Free Images)

Expectations Penalty

You might think that people are more forgiving of harried working mothers who are a few minutes late. Surprisingly, researchers found that mothers are actually held to higher punctuality and performance standards.

Will Marissa Mayer be held to these higher expectations? I think only time will tell. Naturally, the media will gleefully scrutinize her every move as she tries to turn Yahoo! around. Let’s see if she will be held to the same standards as other male CEOs. My hope is that she will be treated fairly by the media.

Asian American Mothers

Does the motherhood penalty affect Asian American women? Very likely to a similar degree as women of other races. Asian American women have about 2.2 children each, on par with whites. 57% of Asian American women were employed in 2010, similar to other ethnic groups. Putting these two statistics together, we have just as many children, and we work just as much as other women. Finally, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 71.4% of women with children under 18 years of age are in the labor force (either employed or looking for work).


As you might expect, there are no easy answers or solutions to this workplace bias against mothers. Understanding why this bias exists does not naturally lead to remedies. Education, policy changes, accommodation for mothers? Many solutions have been tried, and many have failed. In an upcoming post, I will survey various solutions, including the excellent work done by organizations such as the Center for WorkLife Law.

What have been your experiences as a mother in the workplace?


About Debbie Grage

Debbie Grage
Debbie is an ALIST founder and Career Section Editor. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her past community roles have included serving as CFO of the Asian Society at the Stanford GSB, and as a board member with the Association of Women MBA (SF). Debbie is also founder of the MenMuu Leadership Institute and specializes in helping professionals who want to manage their careers proactively. Her career blog can be found at