Motherhood Penalty

“It’s illegal to discriminate against a person in the workplace for being a parent. But bosses get around it in all different kinds of ways” – Hillary Frank, author and podcast host

Hong Kong is a city that is not friendly to working mothers – a point that is clearly reflected in a study released by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in late August. When researchers asked employers in Hong Kong about their ideal job candidates, less than 50% of those surveyed said they would hire women with children.

It’s not because mothers are not competent, not committed or have little career potential, it’s simply because they are mothers – and due to perceived prejudice against them. “Mothers are the main victims of family status discrimination,” said Professor Dai Haijing, the study’s principal investigator and associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Family status discrimination also has a “glass ceiling effect”: if a woman caring for ageing parents applies for a management-level position, the chances of her receiving an offer is 24.5% lower than a woman in the same situation applying for an entry-level job. The study also discovered that of the employees who said they had been discriminated against, only 12% tried to report it to their employers or the EOC. This lack of reporting is largely due to ignorance: some women think such discrimination is routine, while others don’t know how to report it or don’t think it is important to make a complaint.

Discrimination against mothers does not only happen in Hong Kong. In Japan, pressures on female employees to quit work or efforts to demote them after becoming pregnant or giving birth are so prevalent that there is a special word to describe it: “matahara”, or “maternity harassment”.

In contrast, men with children enjoy certain advantages. Fathers are not only more likely to be hired than childless men, they also tend to be paid more after they have children, according to a US research paper, titled “The Fatherhood Bonus, the Motherhood Penalty”. In addition, men enjoy an average wage increase of over 6% per child, while women experience an average 4% salary decrease with each child.

“Employers read fathers as more stable and committed to their work; they have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky,” said Michelle Budig, the study’s author and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “That is the opposite of how parenthood by women is interpreted by employers. The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job.”

The gendered nature of housework contributes to this widespread prejudice. In Hong Kong, men are still expected to be the primary breadwinner. Meanwhile, women shoulder the main responsibility of care duties at home – nearly one-third of women who leave the workforce cite taking care of family members as the reason.

The motherhood penalty is serious a problem for Hong Kong. A result of this stigma is that, disturbingly, some working mothers are not in favour of family leave policies as they reinforce the stereotype that mothers can’t focus on career development.

We are deeply concerned by these findings – they should shock our city into action. To change this penalty, we need better education among employers to raise awareness around this discrimination and best practice to curb this type of behaviour. Equally, we need positive reinforcement from the Government and the community that mothers can (and do!) thrive in their careers and as parents.

At TWF we are committed to driving attitudinal changes and challenging gender stereotypes that underpin this form of discrimination against women. We will continue to advocate for structural change in Hong Kong to support the full participation of women at work and more broadly in our society – for a clearer picture on our areas of focus, read our response to the Labour & Welfare Bureau's Public Consultation on CEDAW.

We all have a part to play in changing the narrative. Write to us with your ideas on eradicating the motherhood penalty by emailing


Written by

The Women's Foundation