Motherhood Penalty – The Wall that Holds Working Mothers Back

Photo: AFP

After the birth of their first child, Dara and Cheata, a couple with similar educational backgrounds and career prospects, saw differing outcomes in their earnings and pension balances.

While Dara advanced in his career, Cheata encountered obstacles re-entering the workforce after maternity leave due to biases and discrimination. Consequently, Cheata's earnings decreased significantly compared to Dara's, resulting in a notable gap in their pension savings by the end of their working lives.

This hypothetical yet realistic case illustrates a phenomenon called the motherhood penalty – the decline in income, perceived competence, and chance for career progression that comes after a working woman has children, according to the University of Monash in Australia.

Research indicates that mothers experience a 60 percent decrease in earnings compared to fathers in the decade following the birth of their first child, leading to lower pension balances by the end of their working lives.

Such disadvantages faced by working mothers in the workforce are prevalent, especially in Cambodia, due to entrenched gender role expectations and inadequate support systems for working mothers.

Entrenched Gender Role Expectations

One of the key challenges faced by Cambodian mothers in the workforce is the traditional gender role expectations that prioritize women's responsibilities in caregiving and domestic duties. These expectations can lead to biases and discrimination against working mothers in employment.

This research revealed that working mothers face bias in resume screening and interviews. Mothers received more negative callback messages and quicker rejections compared to women without children and men. In interviews, participants showed more hostility towards mothers, while men received preferential treatment.

Moreover, working mothers may face stereotypes portraying them as less committed or reliable employees due to their caregiving responsibilities, which can affect their hiring prospects, career advancement and wages.

UNDP’s report in 2021 says marital status is the most important determinant of women’s wage employment in Cambodia. Married women are 38 percent less likely to be in paid employment.

Inadequate Childcare Services

Cambodia also lacks comprehensive policies and support systems to address the needs of working mothers. Access to affordable and quality childcare facilities is limited, especially in suburban and rural areas, making it challenging for mothers to continue working while ensuring their children are cared for.

Kang Somaly, a devoted mother of two in Kompong Speu province, had to make the difficult decision to leave her job as a garment worker, once a source of vital income for her family, as there were no childcare options in her village or nearby. With her husband's earnings as a driver now the sole financial lifeline, Kang faces the daunting challenge of making ends meet on a monthly income of around $200.

Without adequate support, mothers like Somaly are forced to make difficult choices between their professional aspirations and their caregiving duties, often at the expense of their career advancement and economic security.

The International Finance Corporation found that the absence of childcare can significantly impact parents' decisions regarding employment, particularly affecting women, who are responsible for 75 percent of unpaid caregiving duties worldwide.


The motherhood penalty not only affects individual women but also perpetuates gender inequality in the workforce and society at large. By penalizing mothers for their caregiving responsibilities, workplaces reinforce traditional gender roles and hinder women's economic empowerment.

Furthermore, the financial repercussions of the motherhood penalty can contribute to women's economic vulnerability, exacerbating issues such as the gender wealth gap and retirement insecurity.

These challenges faced by Cambodian mothers and Cambodian society in the workforce highlight the urgent need for comprehensive reforms to promote gender equality and support working mothers in balancing their professional and caregiving responsibilities.

By implementing supportive childcare policies and fostering inclusive work environments, Cambodia can create a more equitable and empowering environment for working mothers, enabling them to realize their full potential in the workforce.

Theang Soriya is a freelance columnist and researcher, whose focus is on gender, women and minority groups.

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