How ‘the Motherhood Penalty’ Plays Out for Startup Founders

My experience fundraising while pregnant made it clear that VCs should reflect the experience of the founders they purport to support

Roxanne Petraeus
7 min readJul 30, 2020


Photo: pixdeluxe/E+/Getty Images

Midway through a call with a prominent venture capitalist last fall, he asked me, apropos of nothing, if I was pregnant. Previously, we’d been discussing what can broadly be described as “business things” — my nascent idea for a company that would tackle the dated world of corporate training, the trade-offs between starting my own company versus joining one of his startups. This abrupt topic shift caught me off guard. I flashed back to the small plus sign on the pregnancy test I’d taken days before.

Clearly, there was a right answer. “Nope,” I replied, knowing that I was not going to tell this man before I told my own mother. Then, for good measure, I added, “Also, it’s illegal to ask.” I’d been researching employment law because of my corporate training startup and had come across this scenario countless times. Woman interviews for a job, the hiring manager tries to suss out, with varying degrees of deftness, whether she is or will become a mother.

Revenue, team, and market size are all fair game. Womb occupancy status is not.

“This isn’t a job interview,” he countered. Thrown off by the detour to obstetrics, I tried to recall the legal specifics: Was he right? Was it only California law that covered non-employment relationships such as a founder pitching an investor? Why was this happening? When the call ended, I realized the legal details, while a bit murky, were almost beside the point. Revenue, team, and market size are all fair game. Womb occupancy status is not.

When the call ended, I recapped the experience to my husband, certain that the only reason the investor asked was some sort of ambition litmus test; the VC wanted to know if my best days were behind me. We debated for a bit, and while I couldn’t prove the VC’s intent, it was the most logical explanation. “I wasn’t asking for breast pump recommendations,” I hurled across the room, attempting to end the argument, and my husband reluctantly agreed that there wasn’t a great alternative explanation.

What bothered me most was that, to some extent, I knew where the investor was coming from. I had already decided I wouldn’t tell my co-founder about my pregnancy both because of the convention of waiting until the second trimester to announce, and because I was afraid she might bail. She was hitching her wagon to me, I thought, and my pace was inevitably going to slow.

To be clear, I projected this mindset onto her. She’d given me no such indication that she believed moms were less effective co-founders, but the cultural conception of a startup founder as an 18-year-old guy whose only hobby — coding — conveniently relates to revenue generation, had seeped deep into my brain.

I’m not alone here. The motherhood penalty — in which women’s earnings decrease with each child — is well documented and persists even after controlling for factors such as experience and hours worked. There’s also research showing that mothers are also less likely to be hired than women without children, with no parallel effect for men who are fathers versus those who are not.

Sadly, the issue became moot for me. At my next appointment, the nurse had me hop up on the table so my husband could “meet baby,” and we waited for a heartbeat to fill the room. There wasn’t one. Devastated, I cycled through sadness and guilt. Did the baby somehow know I was afraid? The doctor patiently assured me that I did not have this kind of power, that sad things just happen, but the guilt lingered.

My husband and I walked around our neighborhood to process. Looking for some sort of silver lining to lessen the pain, I said that at least raising capital for my startup would be easier. It felt terrible and trivial, the idea that life was a zero-sum game between personal joy and professional success. I didn’t like it, but I’m not entirely sure I was wrong in the calculation. Less than 3% of venture funding goes to women-founded teams; adding pregnancy to the mix clearly wouldn’t help my odds.

About six months later, my startup had grown from two co-founders to a small team of six. We’d raised our pre-seed round easily and our customer base was quickly growing. When my morning run morphed into what can generously be described as a moderate walk, I knew I was pregnant again.

There are many good reasons to have investors with diverse experiences, and the ability to have honest conversations is one I’ve been especially grateful for lately.

My first experience with pregnancy had been so painful, physically and emotionally, that I decided I didn’t want to go through this second attempt isolated. I immediately told my co-founder and gave her the guardrails I felt comfortable with, walking into the office one morning and announcing, “I’m pregnant and I don’t want to talk about it until I’m far along.” She was supportive and sensitive, asking that I let her know when we could celebrate. Until then, our only shared acknowledgment was my occasional “I miss wine” Slack.

In the early days of this pregnancy, we had dinner with one of our angel investors. (Not the gentleman at the start of this story. Weirdly, that first guy was uninterested in investing.) I knew our angel investor would immediately realize I was pregnant given that my aforementioned love of wine would be conspicuously absent. As the three of us sat down, I blurted out that I was pregnant but I didn’t want to talk about it because of a previous miscarriage.

Our investor, who is a woman, took this in stride with exclamations of, “A baby!” and also deep sympathy for the miscarriage. “I’ve had a few,” she shared. Then, we talked about the business. Later, she sent a onesie, and mercifully, continued helping us build our business, treating me like a person, not a vessel.

While I’m wary of reducing investors to their gender, I did find myself less worried about sharing my pregnancy with our women angel investors. Actually, it was cathartic. Amid all the challenges of growing a team, navigating the pandemic, and watching my body do strange things, I was able to share my “secret” — that I want a family — with them. They responded conspiratorially with, “Same.” There are many good reasons to have investors with diverse experiences, and the ability to have honest conversations is one I’ve been especially grateful for lately.

My pregnancy coincided with our next round of fundraising. I was scheduled to fly out west this March as the world began collapsing. I considered canceling my trip and telling the prospective investors that I’d be remote due to health concerns, but I recalled that early phone call with the VC who’d asked whether I was pregnant. I asked a few mentors in confidence, and they conceded that while investors have adopted the rhetoric of inclusivity, it was probably best not to test their conviction. I got on the plane, trying not to feel like a terrible mom, and told my little one we’d be okay.

My pregnancy progressed during the Covid-19 pandemic, and like many other offices, we all began working from home. I’ve seen the inside of customers’ homes, had Zoom conversations with investors’ “little co-workers,” and watched dogs and partners wandering around living rooms. I’ve taken my calls in a room rapidly filling with baby stuff, camera tilted so the newly assembled crib and assortment of stroller accessories are just out of sight.

Sharing my home office with my husband, I hear the difference in reactions when we share our news. My husband’s colleagues congratulate him. When I share, there’s excitement but also logistical questions about how I’ll manage work and the baby. The few parenting books I’ve read rival only Disney movies in the father’s conspicuous absence from every major child-rearing moment. (Why call the genre parenting if we’re really just talking about mothering?)

My small hope is that ideas such as the importance of office “face time,” which penalizes caregivers, will be seen for what they are — antiquated and counterproductive.

When I hear about my own mother’s experience with pregnancy at work, I know we’ve come a long way. But separate from my personal experience, being the CEO of a growing company has made me realize how few policies and support systems are readily available. We’ve only recently set up parental leave policies, for example, and we’re a company with expertise in gender-related workplace considerations. How much longer would that typically take if the CEO isn’t personally impacted by these issues?

The collapse of many pillars of corporate America is destabilizing for so many workers, but perhaps the seismic shift will eventually allow a rebuilding that doesn’t require a significant portion of the workforce to hide and apologize for what should be an exciting personal moment. My small hope is that ideas such as the importance of office “face time,” which penalizes caregivers, will be seen for what they are — antiquated and counterproductive.

While having a child inside my body during a pandemic is significantly easier than having one outside — I raise a glass of seltzer to all the parents out there — I’m joyfully expecting a baby in October. I’m excited to be a mother, and a co-founder, and am grateful to work with a team that makes me feel comfortable bringing all of an increasingly large me to work.



Roxanne Petraeus
Writer for

Co-founder of Ethena, Army veteran, and pun appreciator