Bonus to Penalty: How Fatherhood Affects Working Men

working fathers

A couple of years ago, a particularly interesting study came out detailing the effect of fatherhood on men's careers.

Here's what the report said: "For most men the fact of fatherhood results in a wage bonus."

Here's what the report talked less about: actual fathering.

Instead, the focus for working fathers was on image and impression. "Fatherhood is a valued characteristic of employers," it read, "signaling perhaps greater work commitment, stability, and deservingness."

So the irony is that while the data touched on child care (a whopping one hour per day for men), the most telling point was this: "Even when wives work continuously after a birth, husbands earnings still rise." Not surprisingly the study shows the flipside for women is a motherhood penalty.

Let's do the math here:

Fatherhood is a professional badge of honor

Men are deemed more upstanding when they become fathers ostensibly because their new responsibilities make them more committed (more mouths to feed = more risk averse = more loyal). But the presumption seems to be that these working fathers will not be compromising performances with actual parenting. In fact the study said after fatherhood, men work more.

Motherhood is a symbol of unreliability

Children have the equal and opposite effect on women, making them look less dependable, and exacting a 4% wage penalty. Of the study's explanations for the discrepancy: "Employers may discriminate against mothers by assuming lower work commitment or performance."

Women are less committed

If dad is rewarded for the image of father, but not the job, then parenting naturally falls to the mothers.

Who's minding the store

The study showed new fathers' hours were unaffected by parenthood, even if mom worked full time. That indicates the above (parenting jobs defaulting to mom) is playing out. And it falls in line with our recent Modern Family Index showing that women shoulder the Mental Load (and in fact the physical one) because society neither expects nor wants men to.

Working fathers and Mothers: Upending the Social Norms

What would be interesting is a similar study on what happens to men who are active parenting participants. And in fact, we've done those.

Across the board, our Modern Family Index (MFI) shows that men who are active fathers are also paying the price: in hostile workplaces, limited professional growth, and the perception that a job change is necessary.

The common thread isn't gender, but workplace culture. In fact one of the most enlightening MFI facts showed that men and women would take less money for a workplace that respects their family responsibilities. It's a big deal since women are already at risk: another reason for the motherhood penalty is women who opt out of the workforce.

As the 2017 MFI report says, "To allow women's and men's careers to flourish, employers will need to offer family-friendly benefits that appeal to both genders...and ensure employees have equitable, gender-blind access to support."

The message: when employers level the playing field, the bonuses are for everyone.  

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.