Why We Need To Stop Penalizing Working Mothers

By Anneli Blundell

Women who work and have families are working around the clock. This is not the plight of a parent, it is the plight of a mother. When women have children, they become ‘carers’ and their commitment to work is questioned. However, when men have children, they become ‘providers’ and their commitment to work is expected. But there are also women without children – women who can’t have children, don’t yet have children or chose not to have children. These women also face the motherhood penalty, albeit in a different way. 

Why are mothers treated differently to fathers? What’s the real cost of being a mother? And is it possible to have a successful career and a happy family, all without guilt? 

Caring comes at a cost

Women pay a price for being working mothers because society cannot hold the reality that mothers can be committed to their children and their careers. Becoming a parent changes the perception of your professional brand and that’s not good news for women. A 2008 report by Eden King of Rice University states that working mothers are believed to be ‘less capable and mentally tough’ compared to people without children. Also, women who have children are more likely to be the primary care giver. As such, they will either take a career break or work part-time. This means less money, lower pay and less money to retire with. It’s readily acknowledged that the world of work was originally made by men, for men. So the gender roles continue to dig in their hurtful heels and further entrench the gender pay gap.

Flip the script

If you are a working mother, you are a leader. Make no mistake about it. Motherhood is not a penalty; it’s a boot camp for brave leaders. If you can be a parent and survive, you can be a leader and thrive. What you learn from parenting is transferable to the workplace. Consider these skills: resourcefulness, time management and productivity, empathy and dealing with high-pressure negotiations. The 21st century version of leadership is calling forth the adaptable, creative, resilient, emotionally intelligent and committed. That is a working parent. That is a mother.

Resisting the easy path

The unrealistic expectations, the financial cost and the lack of career opportunities that working mothers face is not okay. The more we accept them, the longer they remain. When mothers work full-time hours in part-time roles, they are training the company that this is reasonable. Women must start challenging pay rates, expected hours, lack of opportunities and lack of support – only then can the company rise to the challenge or lose good women in the process. Being the first one to push back on unrealistic expectations can be hard but if everyone is doing it, it’s no longer about you—it’s about the company.

Playing small controls the stress

It’s tempting for working mothers to play small at work. To choose safe assignments, push others forward and take a back seat. Playing small can become a habit because they fear what success brings: another level of pressure, of stress and of responsibility. But the key to remaining ambitious and in contention is to not limit your prospects but limit the expectations of how to fulfill your prospects. It’s about setting clear boundaries and negotiating realistic outcomes and expectations. Don’t limit your ambition, manage others’ expectations.

Embrace the presence of guilt

With so much to be responsible for, balls will drop. Enter the guilt. You think you can appease it if you just do more of this or less of that. You think it will go away. It won’t. Nor does it need to. The presence of guilt means you care. If you didn’t feel guilty about missing work or not being with your kids, it means you don’t care anymore. As long as you care, you will wrestle with guilt. Full stop. So stop fighting it and start embracing it—but only briefly. It’s a visitor, not a resident. Don’t catastrophize, and don’t give it more airtime than it deserves. 

Be present and be seen

You’ve no doubt heard the mantra quality over quantity. Rather than trying to be all things at all times, recognize that you’ll be more effective if you compartmentalize. If you’re at home, be at home and be present. If you’re at work, be at work and be present. But also, be seen. Being invisible is an issue for those who work part-time. Find creative ways to stay front of mind with your manager and colleagues. Create reasons to have a video call. Pick up the phone for a quick check-in. Don’t let out of sight become out of mind.

Motherhood is not a penalty; it’s a boot camp for brave leaders. Step into this value and leverage your experience. And remember, motherhood magnifies obstacles and opportunities. Strategize your play to optimize your game.

Edited extract from ‘The Gender Penalty: Turning obstacles into opportunities for women at work’ (BACCA House Press $24.99) by Anneli Blundell. Find out more at www.anneliblundell.com