Why Working Mothers Fall Behind

Are we doing enough to help women stay on track?

By Osato Evbuomwan

Gender equality in the labour market continues to be a hotly debated subject. Issues like pay gaps and the lack of women in senior and middle leadership positions have been the main focus of the feminist movement and as a result, we have recorded some progress in overturning a history of entrenched sexism in the workplace. But we have not quite figured out how to help women avoid the long-term costs of taking time off for and after childbirth, effectively keeping them ever a few steps behind their male counterparts on the career track.

Women who take career breaks to have children are less likely to be hired when they try to get back into the world of work. And for those who do get hired, they have to contend with receiving less pay than equally qualified colleagues due to the time they have spent out of work. Some are forced to work part-time to enable them to ‘balance’ their family responsibilities with earning an income, while others end up dropping out of the labour force altogether and choosing full-time parenting, thus giving up on any career dreams they may have had before they became mothers.

Covid-19 widening the gap

With the onset of the pandemic and its disruptive effects on work and schooling, mothers are at an even higher risk of their careers being stalled and of dropping out of the labour force entirely. Where schools and other options like day care centres and creches were available to help shoulder childcare responsibilities, mothers now have to add the task of fully minding and home-schooling their children to their day jobs. Preliminary data already indicates that this is having a negative impact on mental health, especially because working mothers are more likely to take on the primary role of home-schooling and caregiving than working fathers.

On the surface, this may look like a ‘women-only’ problem, but, like most gender gap issues, it is one that has far-reaching consequences. Working mothers are critical economic contributors to their households, and in many cases, contribute at least half of household income. If they continue to fall behind in their careers or continue to have fewer chances of progression due to their family responsibilities, there is a higher risk that their household income will come under pressure. The picture is even grimmer in situations where the working mum is a single parent and the sole breadwinner.

Addressing the career-family trade-off

Despite our best intentions, women are still having to make trade-offs on career growth and family responsibilities.

Progressive organizations have sought to make work-life balance easier for women to manage by creating flexible work policies, providing extended maternity leave with pay, incorporating childcare and mum-friendly facilities into the design of office spaces and many other initiatives which take the very real and significant challenges of being a working mother into consideration. While these certainly help to alleviate some of the stress that women face, they do not directly address the problem of career growth and development, especially in the areas of pay and promotions. Studies show that women without children are more likely to have careers that resemble those of men than their female counterparts with children, because they do not have to take as much time off and they have more flexibility in their schedules. But this means that, despite our best intentions, women are still having to make trade-offs on career growth and family responsibilities.

So, how do we help women stay on track and stop paying such a steep price for the biological and societal responsibilities that have been assigned to them?

Normalizing pregnancy in the workplace

We need to normalize pregnancy in the workplace and change the perception that it is a ‘problem’.

To begin with, we need to normalize pregnancy in the workplace and change the perception that it is a ‘problem’. We do not talk enough about the impact that our poor perceptions have on women — from the fear of getting pregnant at a critical time in their career to the fear of announcing it and the ensuing worry about what it might mean for their progression. Being deliberate about having open conversations focused on addressing the concerns women have not only makes them feel more comfortable about what is a natural life event, but also signals to the rest of the organization (men included) that pregnancy should not in any way put anyone at a disadvantage.

Next, we should stop making assumptions for women about what they want or need while they are pregnant. It is easy to assume that a pregnant woman would rather not travel for work or may not want to take on more complex tasks because they might be exhausting. So, in trying to ‘help’ her, we assign business travel and critical projects to her male colleagues, unwittingly impairing her chances for development. Instead, we should encourage mothers-to-be to speak up about their expectations for the time that they are pregnant — how they would like to approach their work, the things they would like to do, and the support needed to move their careers forward irrespective of impending motherhood. Giving them this opportunity not only puts them in control of their situation, but also helps allay some of the fears or concerns they may have about becoming redundant within the workplace.

Creating room for women to thrive

Women are programmed to wear many hats, one of which is the distinguished hat of motherhood.

Taking it one step further, we should design processes and policies that support the development of working mothers. A practical solution could be to assign internal career sponsors to expectant mothers, who would help women chart a clear path of ‘recovery’ and development for when they return from maternity leave. This might involve accelerator training programmes designed to get them up to speed when they return to work, along with proactively identifying critical projects they can take on when they resume their duties. It could also include formal coaching and mentoring as well as employee assistance programs that enable them to settle back into work with confidence.

These suggestions are by no means exhaustive. In fact, I think that if organizations created room for more open conversations on the subject, we would discover many effective ways to empower women to reach their full leadership potential. Women are programmed to wear many hats, one of which is the distinguished hat of motherhood. But we mustn’t let that get in the way of them achieving their professional dreams.

The Flip Side: By deliberately giving mothers this seeming ‘advantage’, do we run the risk of alienating men in the workplace, or perhaps even creating an environment that further enables negative perceptions and discrimination towards women at work? What about the potential impact on women without children and how this might make them feel less valued? While there are no easy answers to these questions, the key is in finding the right balance, and making sure that there is a career growth plan for everyone, tailored to their specific circumstances.

Member of The Room and creator of “The Talking Circle”, Osato Evbuomwan is a Senior Marketing Manager at Unilever who is passionate about serving the African consumer. An ardent supporter of gender equality, she is on a quest to empower women by creating a brave and safe space for conversations that challenge taboos and change mindsets.

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