You'd be forgiven for holding the common view that mothers are less ambitious than non-mothers. It's an assumption ingrained into our society that when a woman has a baby, her priorities change.
I was on the receiving end of this assumption in 2016 when I found out that I was pregnant with twins. We were going to have four children under the age of five (!) but the one thing people really couldn’t get their heads around was the fact that I wanted to keep on working – and I wanted to carry on progressing up the ladder.
I also decided that I needed to earn more to support my growing family and so, when our twins were nine months old, I began an MBA.
My friends thought I was mad, my work colleagues thought I was mad, and my student-parental status was so unusual that someone on my course rudely referred to me as someone who worked in “baby manufacturing”.
As a working mother of four young children, the confluence of ambition and motherhood is something I can speak about with a certain level of authority. It was also why I decided to choose it for my thesis topic. Was I the only woman who felt like this? I spoke to women working for big UK brands to find out.
Mothers lacking career ambition is a common explanation for the UK gender pay gap, which in 2019 was 17.3 per cent. After all, parenthood is a very tricky time and understandably might disrupt careers. Yet men’s salaries go up when they have children; fathers earn 21 per cent more than men of the same age without children and fathers with two children earn more than fathers with one child. For mothers, however, it’s the opposite. Mothers earn 7 per cent less than non-mothers and it’s as much as 18 per cent less for mothers of three children. This pay penalty for working mothers is commonly referred to as the "motherhood penalty".
The motherhood penalty is easily explained by the popular media; mothers "opt out" of the workplace, choosing part-time work over full-time and are less committed after having children. Bookshops are lined with books capitalising on the idea that women must grow in confidence in order to realise their career ambitions. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which has sold over four million copies, argues that women don’t try hard enough to strive for high goals, which she terms the “ambition gap”. Meanwhile a 2015 KPMG report advises how women can bridge the “confidence gap”.
It’s a big assumption to make; that to close the gender pay gap and tackle the pitiful representation of women in senior leadership positions, it’s the women who have to try harder.
From interviewing women in varying levels of management, I heard a very different story. I learnt that for a woman to have confidence in the workplace, management needs to have confidence in her.
Instead, however, I saw a pattern of discriminatory behaviour towards mothers that threatened to chip away at their ambition. Comments such as, “What does she think she is, part-time?” in response to a request for a phased return from maternity or, from a commercial director, “We shouldn’t have to make allowances for people like you” responding to a request for parental leave.
Six months back from maternity leave one manager was turned down for promotion because she “hadn’t delivered a major project in the last two years”. What she had delivered was a baby.
The return to work after maternity is a crucial time for women’s career progression. Firstly, most of the women I interviewed returned from maternity into a new role that was convenient for the employer and either found it difficult to challenge or did not know what they were letting themselves in for. Research shows that 40 per cent of women feel isolated and unsupported on their return to work and 90 per cent of women do not received support in the form of return-to-work training.
Secondly, when women return from maternity into a new position they are often excluded from promotion opportunities which delays progression. This is because, in the eyes of their employer, they just started a new job and have yet to prove themselves, never mind that it’s the same level that they were doing before.
I also saw examples of subtle discrimination in the form of decision-making on behalf of women. A junior manager for a major multinational lamented that “because I was a mother, a general assumption was made that I wasn't interested in progressing and just wanted to come in, do my job and go home”.
This is benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism is a form of paternalistic prejudice directed towards women. Not putting a woman in the promotional pool or not offering to send her on work-travel because she has family responsibilities is a form of benevolent sexism. And yet none of the women I spoke to felt any less ambitious after having children than they did before and many of the them felt more ambitious after children.
Here’s a manager for a major UK brand: “Since I've come back from maternity, I'm even more ambitious. Having a year out, it makes you think differently; you realise there's a whole world out there.”
So, what can we do about this? We need to ignore the story the popular media is peddling – that women themselves are the problem and look at ourselves and our business’s behaviour instead.
Stop trying to fix the women. Instead, as managers, as HR professionals and as colleagues we must have confidence in mothers’ ability and desire to progress and create the right culture to support their ambitions. By investing confidence in mothers, you will see them flourish because, despite the popular narrative, these women are ambitious and hungry for leadership positions. Only if we create the right conditions to allow mothers to progress in the workplace can we tackle the motherhood penalty.
Anna Harris is senior strategic planner at Stein IAS. Last year she completed an executive MBA, funded by a Northern Powerhouse scholarship, graduating with a distinction.
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