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“I never realized how much I would have to advocate for my career as a working mom,” says Christina, a 39-year-old marketing and advertising director.
When early motherhood is depicted in movies and on television, it often seems blissful. The labor is quick, the mom and baby are healthy, and maternity leave is a breeze. Returning to work, however, is rarely even a plot point. Yet, in real life, while rewarding, being a mom is one of the most challenging roles to embody. And for moms who return to their careers after having or raising children, they can experience even more adversity.
The motherhood penalty’s effect on upward mobility
Mothers uniquely experience disadvantages when returning to the workforce — anything from having trouble getting hired or moving up in their careers to not getting paid the same as their counterparts who aren’t moms. It’s what sociologists refer to as the motherhood penalty, which ties back to the outdated idea that mothers should remain at home as the primary caregiver for their children, and those who choose to return to work will not be as committed to their jobs since they may have to take time away or reduce their hours because of caregiving responsibilities.
For instance, if a mom (or dad) has been home for a period of time raising children, that can impact their ability to reenter the workforce, as it’s been proven that hiring managers prefer to see continuous employment. And the bias that working moms can’t keep up with both work and caregiving demands is partially to blame for why only one out of every four C-suite leaders are women.
The motherhood penalty affects financial mobility too, as researchers found that between two years before the birth of a couple’s first child and a year after, the earnings gap between opposite-sex spouses doubles and continues to grow until a child reaches age 10. Not to mention the fact that women, regardless of whether they have children, already earn 30% less than men — and even less for women of color.
Balancing careers and kids, a perception shift
Alyson, 39, remembers when she was still breastfeeding while working as a nurse. “How did I do it?” she wonders. “There was nowhere to pump at work…It was so hard asking another nurse to watch your critically ill patient while you went to pump for 20-30 minutes. There was so much guilt.”
While it is incorrect to assume a working mother lacks commitment to her job if she ever needs to adjust her schedule because of her children, part of the problem is the expectation for new moms to rejoin the workforce as if their life hasn’t drastically changed since having a baby.
“We’re just expected to throw ourselves back into the mix and go about our day as if nothing has changed, but, in reality, our whole lives have changed,” shares Christina.
Alyson adds that while balancing work and motherhood has gotten easier since her kids have been in school, she still feels somewhat held back career-wise because of time constraints with their schedules.
To truly cancel the motherhood penalty, there’s a perception shift that needs to happen. Subconscious or not, there shouldn’t be any question whether a mother can also be a devoted employee. The focus should instead be on finding ways to better support her at work and at home, so it isn’t as complicated to balance both roles.
Fostering a supportive work environment
Openly talking about the motherhood penalty is one way to help break subconscious stereotypes, especially during the hiring process — and can be a great topic of discussion for any parent-focused colleague resource groups. To take further action, having career mobility plans and pay structures in place within an organization can help to ensure career growth and pay equity for those currently working or returning from maternity leave.
Encouraging personal advocacy is also key, as a supportive work environment is one where everyone feels comfortable speaking up for their own needs and, in turn, employers are understanding of schedule shifts that may arise, particularly for those who have kids. Christina, for example, advocated to work from home to better align with her caregiving responsibilities. “I felt I had put in the work, proven my abilities, and shown that whether in office or not, I would deliver.” Options like remote and hybrid work or flexible hours that accommodate caregiving schedule changes, while popularized by the pandemic, are easy solutions for many organizations to continue offering their employees.
Another way organizations can support working moms and dads is through their benefits package. Not only with strong mental health resources for families, but by providing childcare-specific benefits like company-paid credits for booking in-home child care or child care reimbursements. Caregiver benefits, like Wellthy, can also be beneficial to help moms alleviate the mental load that comes from parenting, as can offering paternity or partner leave for working fathers or spouses to help with parental duties.
The motherhood skillset
Christina shares why she prioritizes her time better as a mom: “We need to work smarter and more efficiently to maximize our time at work, in order to ensure we have enough time not only for our family, but also for ourselves and our own wellness.”
Have you ever seen a mother soothe a crying baby and defuse an argument between two more of her children, all while cooking dinner? There are moms that could teach a MasterClass on multitasking, problem-solving, and time management without ever leaving their homes. Their unique skill set is a superpower that employers (and spouses) should feel lucky to have access to.
“Being a mom has made me a better employee. It has helped me empathize with families that are going through difficult times. I can put myself in their shoes,” Alyson says.
While it will take some time to diminish the bias that comes from the motherhood penalty, appreciating and acknowledging what working moms bring to the table is a good place to start.
Point32Health is a nonprofit health and well-being organization, guiding and empowering healthier lives for all. Throughout all of life’s stages and challenges, our family of companies inclusive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan support members and their families with whole-health benefits and solutions. Point32Health is committed to gender pay equity for all its employees.
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