Blogs / 14 Mar 2023 7 min

Motherhood penalty, fatherhood forfeit: is the corporate world doing enough to enable its people to fulfil their parental responsibilities?

By Shazma Ahmed, Shape Talent Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant and Sharon Peake, CEO & Founder – Shape Talent  

Becoming a parent is amongst the most significant life changes a person can experience, the effects of which impact almost all parts of life; finances, relationships, daily routines, overall wellbeing and almost every micro-decision in between. 

Parenthood brings more than the reality that another person is wholly dependent on you. With it comes a whole set of responsibilities and duties that need to be fulfilled. It is no surprise that decisions around ‘who takes on what’, is very much still shaped by society and traditional gender norms. When children come along, it’s common for women to be the ones to reduce their hours, take a step back from the work they are qualified to do or even exit the workforce altogether. On the other hand, men can feel the pressure to be the primary breadwinner responsible for providing financial stability for the family. 

The result is: women feel that they are missing out at work and men feel as though they are missing out at home. These results rare commonly referred to as the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood forfeit. 

In the EU, as at 2020, 72.2% of mothers were in the workforce, while for fathers workforce participation was at 90.0%1. With the increase of dual income households, we must question whether organisations are doing enough to enable their people to fulfil their parental responsibilities and enjoy parenthood. Most importantly, to retain and attract quality talent, organisations consider how they are supporting this ever-growing population of the workforce: parents. 


Fatherhood forfeit, what are the challenges? 

Some fathers experience the ‘invisible dilemma’2: the societal expectations of being the main breadwinner while remaining actively involved in their child(ren)’s lives. It may seem easy to conclude that the solution to balance these roles would be through flexible and part time working practices, however studies3 show that fathers who attempt this balance through part time work are more likely to experience the ‘fatherhood forfeit’. A study by Plymouth University found men working part-time were rated lower than women working part-time, in terms of their promotability, hireability, competence and commitment4.  

Another study5 found that 76% of partnered fathers hoped to work more flexibly in the future, with 63% hoping to work more from home, however, fathers’ requests for flexible working were refused at almost twice the rate of mothers6 and fathers are twice more likely for their overall career success to be impacted through flexible working7.  Overall, fathers are less likely to receive workplace support in carrying out their parental responsibilities. 


Motherhood penalty – what are the challenges faced? 

Interestingly, and in contrast, mothers who work full time are found to be less likeable. In the study8, those who returned to full time work after their firstborn were considered to be unfavourably non-conventional as they crossed the societal norm and expectation of prioritising family life. At the same time, mothers who worked part time were considered unreliable and perceived more likely to have work-family conflict than men who worked full time. 

The motherhood penalty escribes the workplace disadvantages felt by women when they become mothers including the perception of lower competence, promotability and commitment. Studies9 have shown the ‘motherhood penalty’ makes up 80%10 of the gender pay gap. To add to this, working women and especially mothers are undertaking a significantly greater share of unpaid labour creating a burdensome ‘double bind’. 

The Global Gender Gap Report11 found that among 33 countries representing 54% of the global working-age population, men spent just a 19% of time on unpaid work, a third of the time of women who spent a staggering 55% of time on unpaid work (as a proportion of total work). 

To add to the issue of gendered stereotypes and the unfavourable perceptions of working fathers and mothers that stem from these is the financial pressures felt by families with dependent children. Strong societal expectations of ‘who should do what’ fail to take into consideration the wider external pressures including the increases in living costs and a lack of government childcare support schemes and incentives, leaving parents increasingly overworked and under pressure.  


What can organisations do to support parents at work? 

  1. Make flexibility the default approach and normalise part time and flexible work for men – remove the barrier for parents in having to apply for, and have approved flexible work by making all jobs flexible by design, where possible. A study by Working Families found that 82% of parents are likely to apply for jobs that advertise some form of flexibility, compared to only 31% who would apply for jobs that don’t. Concurrently encouraging and normalising these arrangements for men and fathers can help to create gender-balanced parenting presence and remove the gendered stigma often associated with flexible working.
  2. Equalise parental leave – parental leave entitlements vary enormously depending on where you are in the world. The Nordics are well known for having gender balanced parental leave entitlements supported by the state. But in other countries, such as the UK and the US, there are poor statutory parental pay provisions. Organisations can help bridge this gap by equalising policies so that all genders are entitled to the same amount of parental leave and pay. This provides access for more fathers to primary caregiving,  a positive start to dismantling the stigma that women face while addressing the gender stereotypes that are holding men and women back.
  3. Critically re-evaluate job design for managerial roles – in most organisations full time is king when it comes to managerial roles, and often individuals won’t be considered for these roles unless they are prepared to work full time. However, this has a significant knock-on effect for working mothers, and contemporary fathers, who are effectively locked out of these opportunities. Organisations can think critically about different ways of designing roles, what the knock-on implications are for how work is allocated and how communication takes place in a team.
  4. Prioritise work-life balance and hold leaders accountable – in the workplace most people look to what their leaders practice to understand the unwritten rules of acceptable behaviour. If your leaders are ‘leaving loudly’ – announcing that they are leaving at a reasonable hour of the day to collect children from school, for example, then that sets the tone for what others can do too. Think about your own role modelling, and that of your leaders: what example you are setting for the people you work with – is it as positive as it could be?
  5. Empower parents – given 82% of women are mothers by age 45yo12 (and arguably a similar proportion of men are fathers),  parents represent a huge proportion of the workforce. Building sustainable support systems for parents and empowering them to find a way of working that works for them is key to retaining great talent. Programmes that support parents can help boost engagement, retention and wellbeing of parents at work.  

Supporting both parents has the greatest impact on changing the trajectory of the status quo and removing the motherhood penalty and fatherhood forfeit. Organisations that can build workplaces in which parents thrive can benefit from staff retention, reduced disruption, increased productivity and a pipeline of high quality and engaged candidates for leadership positions. 


Shape Talent Ltd are the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.  

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