Motherhood Gap and Employer Discrimination. A Qualitative Investigation in the German Context


  • Yvonne ZIEGLER Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  • Regine GRAML Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  • Vincenzo ULI Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  • Kristine KHACHATRYAN University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Mainz, Germany



Background: Motherhood penalty has often been considered the base for the wage gap and the glass ceiling phenomena. It represents a delicate topic in gender equality since its effects tend to persist over medium to long time periods and its validity holds in most countries. The study has been designed to investigate the specific contribution of employer discrimination to the overall motherhood penalty in socioeconomic contexts characterized by the archetype of the “male breadwinner model”, which has been further exacerbated by the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
Methods: The employer discrimination phenomenon has often been treated as a black box, since longitudinal data and panel regression modelling were unsuitable to assess the magnitude of the effect of this variable on the overall motherhood penalty. For this study, we addressed this gap by focusing on employer discrimination in the specific context of Germany. The work is based on data generated from a survey conducted among 2,130 working mothers and it is presented as a qualitative content analysis.
Results: Our qualitative angle on the employer discrimination phenomenon confirmed previous quantitative investigations. Firstly, the employer attitude toward working mothers conformed to the “second shift” hypothesis, with highly skilled mothers in managerial roles in particular experiencing the largest motherhood gap in our sample. Secondly, we found confirmation for the theory of human capital, with working mothers seeing their career progression come to a halt or temporary slowdown, and pending salary increases not implemented as originally planned. Finally, we found employer discrimination taking various forms, the most frequent being a mismatch between skills level of the working mothers and the suggested new role post parental leave.
Conclusion: Our study confirms the previous academic investigations on the topic discussing the antecedents of the motherhood gap, namely the “second shift” hypothesis and the work-effort hypothesis. Ultimately, employers seem to trigger, voluntarily or not, certain career choices for working mothers (e.g., “mother-friendly” arrangements) which cause the motherhood gap to increase, and thus further reinforce the traditional male breadwinner model.

Keywords: Gender studies, Motherhood penalty, Employer discrimination, Glass ceiling, Content analysis






Research Papers