What is the motherhood penalty? It’s the invisible price women pay for becoming mums. As sad as it is to admit, motherhood is costing women at work.
Women who have children are more likely to be the primary caregiver. As such, they will either take a career break or work part-time in order to raise their kids. This means less money comes in each week, lower pay and less superannuation. I mean it literally when I say care is costing us.
But the cost is more than dollars alone; it’s also career prospects, networks, visibility and opportunities to get ahead. If you work part-time, you often don’t get the same access to high-visibility or business-critical projects, because you are not spending enough time in front of the people who give out these projects. This means you get less experience to show on your CV, which affects your ability to get more of these opportunities, which ultimately affects your confidence and career prospects.
And this is likely to only accelerate as more women choose a hybrid working model to support their families. I’m afraid out of sight will prove out of mind if managers don’t learn to manage remote workers more inclusively.
Added to these costs of women being on a lower income is the choice that inevitably needs to be made once the kids are a bit older—about whether a mother continues to stay home with the kids or goes back to work full-time. Women typically earn less than men already, so chances are a mother will already earn less than her partner in a heterosexual partnership—and this is then compounded if she’s taken a career break or worked part-time after having kids. When the decision about who should stay at (or go back to) work is made (read: who will bring in the most money for the family), it most often falls in favour of the man.
Exasperating this situation is the enormous cost of childcare when mothers go back to work. The mother’s income may be just enough to cover the childcare costs with little remaining. Or, worse, the family may be worse off because there is not enough to cover the childcare costs. This situation keeps women locked in the cycle of always staying home because it will never make economic sense for the family unit to live off her smaller salary. And this is why it’s not always a “choice” that women stay home as carers. It’s an economic equation. And so the gender roles dig in their hurtful heels once again, and further entrench the gender pay gap.
Adapting the play for motherhood
The following strategies will help you challenge the status quo of parenting expectations and get the most out of being a mother and a career woman.
1. Mothers are undervalued—flip the script
Just because society undervalues the role of mother, doesn’t mean we have to. If you are a working mother, you are a leader. Make no mistake about it. If you can negotiate breakfast with a toddler day in and day out, you can handle people and personalities at work, any day of the week.
We need to remember that the skills of parenting are some of the most enduring and critical skills any professional will develop in their working life. That’s not to say you can’t develop these skills without being a parent. Of course, you can. But you do get a masterclass when you become a parent.
2. Accepting is condoning—resist the easy path
The unrealistic expectations, the financial cost and the lack of career opportunities that working mothers face is not okay. Part of the problem with these working conditions is the more we accept them, the more we condone them and the longer they are here to stay. It’s like a worker who wants to prove themselves—but does so by working over-time, all the time. In the process, they create unrealistic expectations of that role. They never get more resources or support because management has now been trained to expect one person can handle the role on their own. So when mothers work full-time hours in part-time roles, for example, they are training the company that this is okay, that it is reasonable and that this is the norm . . . and so it is.
3. Playing small controls the stress—break the habit early
In order to keep their sanity, working mothers must make difficult decisions. Do I focus on my career or do I focus on my family? A vote for one feels like a vote against the other. And when push comes to shove, the family usually wins out, at least at the beginning. So women often start playing small at work. We choose safe assignments, push others forward and take a back seat with our careers to focus on our family. And then we forget to re-evaluate. Playing small becomes a habit. Instead of challenging the structures that make it hard to take on better jobs in fewer hours and more meaningful assignments with less experience, we let ourselves stay small. It’s easier. And let’s face it—there aren’t many examples of successful part-time female executives to model . . . yet.
4. The presence of guilt—embrace it
The presence of guilt means you care. And that’s a good thing. Think about it. If you didn’t feel guilty about missing work or not being with your kids, it would mean you don’t care anymore. So as long as you care about your work and your kids, 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 catastrophise and don’t give it anymore airtime than it deserves. Show it the door before it sits on the floor and get on with your day.
5. Quality over quantity—be present
You’ve no doubt heard the mantra quality over quantity. But I doubt you’ve heard it applied to being a mother! And yet that’s exactly what I’m suggesting you focus on. Rather than trying to be all things at all times, recognise that you’ll be more effective if you compartmentalise the two roles. It’s not always possible, granted, but it’s liberating when it is.
If you’re at work, be at work. If you’re at home, be at home. Give yourself permission to spend more quality time with your kids than quantity time with them. Kids know when you are “phoning it in”, when you’re there, but not really there. So give up the ruse. You may end up spending “less” time with them but they will have a better experience when they are with you. And that’s got to be better than nothing?
The more focused you are in the present, the more effective you become in the moment. And remember—you can also play the long game. You don’t have to take on everything at once. Sometimes family comes first and the job takes a back seat. And that’s okay too.
6. Visibility creates opportunity—be seen
Being invisible is an issue for those who work part-time because, well, part-time. If you are only there part of the time, you are only top of mind part of the time. Managers are busy and reminding them that you exist, that you do great work, and that you should be considered for that big opportunity is important for building your career. If you never go into the office on the same day as your boss, but your colleague is in there every time your boss is, the boss will know them better. They will see more of their work, build greater trust, have more time to chat about opportunities and will be more likely to think of them when that opportunity comes up. It’s as simple as that. Visibility creates opportunity. Be seen.
If you’re not going into the office as often, be sure to 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. Send a thank you note. Don’t let out of sight become out of mind.
Edited extract from The gender penalty: Turning obstacles into opportunities for women at work (BACCA House Press $24.99) by Anneli Blundell.
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