skip to navigation skip to content

Prospective bias


A ‘prospective’ motherhood penalty holds women back in the workplace regardless of their actual motherhood status, says new study from Cambridge Judge Business School in advance of International Women’s Day.

The workplace motherhood penalty has been well documented. A new study at Cambridge Judge Business School instead looks at a largely unaddressed issue – the “prospective motherhood penalty” – and finds that women viewed as potential mothers are held back at work regardless of their actual motherhood status.

The discussion paper – entitled “Navigating the prospective motherhood career penalty: challenges and strategies” – was published by the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School in advance of International Women’s Day, being held this year on Sunday 8 March.

Women without children are perceived more negatively than men without children in areas including commitment, competence and motivation, with little statistical difference between women with children and without children, says the paper.

Similarly, women without children reported significantly higher negative career outcomes – fewer pay raises, promotions and job offers, and less challenging or lower-viability work projects – than men without children. Again, there was little statistical difference between women with and without children on these career outcomes.

The paper was co-authored by Sucheta Nadkarni, Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management and Director of the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre at Cambridge Judge, who sadly died in October 2019 before the paper could be published; Dr Monique Boddington, Research Associate at the Entrepreneurship Centre and Deputy Director of the Master of Studies in Entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge; Stacey Kurtz Campkin, an Executive MBA alumna of Cambridge Judge; and Rasmus Pichler, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Judge.

“The paper finds that the prospective motherhood penalty is a major issue afflicting women in the workplace at a time when more women are choosing not to have children or to have children at a later age,” said study co-author Dr Monique Boddington.

Monique Boddington.
Monique Boddington

“This penalty is likely to have severe career ramifications on women in middle-level jobs and those with high potential to reach executive-level posts, so it provides a new explanation for the persistence of gender pay gaps across organisations.”

The paper finds that the prospective motherhood penalty reflects a stereotypical bias that penalises women in the workplace. Under such bias, mothers and prospective mothers are often perceived as being less competent, less hardworking and lacking commitment in the workplace. This can result in missing out on promotions and challenges “essential for career growth and development”.

As the paper highlights, the choice to be child free is on the rise in many parts of the world owing to reduced stigma of childlessness and increased focus on career. The US birth rate has consistently been in decline, while nearly one in five women in England and Wales born in 1971 have no children at all – compared to one in 10 of their mothers’ generation.

The discussion paper is based on a survey of 115 male and female middle and senior executives from varying family situations (no children, pregnant, children). The study sample is comprised of 46 (43 per cent) males and 66 (57 per cent) females, with participants ranging in age from 28 to 66. About 60 per cent of respondents did not have children, and 40 per cent had or were expecting children.

The sample was drawn from Executive MBA students at a major university and people referred by those students. Both males and females had successfully risen up career ladders, making their insights helpful in understanding strategies to deal with prospective motherhood penalties.

The paper concludes by suggesting five strategies for women to combat this prospective motherhood penalty:

  1. Be authentic rather than falling into a trap of feeling pressured into changing due to negative workplace stereotype biases.
  2. Find a niche you are passionate about, which will enhance satisfaction and drive to persist in the face of workplace challenges.
  3. Pursue lifelong learning, which boosts confidence and increases marketability, credibility and access to valuable networks.
  4. Seek sponsorship, particularly early on in a career, because this can help overcome biases and increase workplace visibility in opening up new opportunities.
  5. Have a circle of support that includes partner, family, friends and colleagues, which provides a safety net to seek advice in dealing with stereotypical biases in the workplace.