The Motherhood Penalty: Why We're Losing Our Best Talent To Caregiving
When women in the workplace talk about their children, they’re often seen as distracted. When men talk about their children, they’re viewed as caring dads. New research supports that the “motherhood penalty” is real: The latest Bright Horizons’ annual Modern Family Index found that:
-69% of working Americans say working moms are more likely to be passed up for a new job than other employees
-60% say career opportunities are given to less qualified employees instead of working moms who may be more skilled
-72% of both working moms and dads agree that women are penalized in their careers for starting families, while men are not.
Is this fair? The motherhood penalty may play a big part in holding women back from leadership positions and contribute to the wage gap. In fact, women get a 4% pay cut for each child they have, compared to men who get a 6% pay increase on average, according to The New York Times. With roughly 40% of women now the breadwinners, this penalty impacts the financial well-being not only of women, but of men and families as well. Moreover, this bias also affects women who do not currently—and may never have—children.
We may even be moving backwards when it comes to supporting mothers in the workplace: Nearly twice as many U.S. women are nervous to tell their boss they are pregnant as compared to five years ago, and 65% of women without children have reservations about having a child, including 42% who fear it would hurt their career trajectory, according to the Modern Family Index.
“I keep wanting to believe that we’ve evolved, and that with awareness comes action, but it’s still the same story across many industries,” says Maribeth Bearfield, Chief Human Resources Officer of Bright Horizons. “Women make up 50% of entry-level positions, but there continues to be a big drop off in middle management.”
Once you become aware of an issue such as the motherhood penalty, unconscious bias is just an excuse. Women lose out on opportunities, men lose out on feeling accepted as caregivers, companies lose out on amazing talent, the economy loses out on the $28 trillion that could be added to the global GDP if we reach full gender equality.
So how can we overcome the motherhood penalty and help companies, leaders and employees think and behave differently? Here are some action steps to change the equation, from workplace practices that employees can take to policies companies can adopt.
Both men and women should be transparent about your personal responsibilities. We all have a life outside of work: Being open about your own can help encourage others to do the same. What if both men and women brought their family pictures to work, and—rather than making excuses—let everyone know they were leaving early to go to their child’s game? The more we talk about parenting in the workplace, the more it becomes the new norm.
“I’ve been in companies where we didn’t talk about our families or put up personal pictures because we didn’t want others to think we couldn’t handle work with our children,” says Bearfield. “There are moments where you have to step out to respond to family needs, and if we see leaders doing that, it makes it easier for everyone to do that. If employees don’t feel comfortable, say, taking a call from their child during a meeting, will they really be present?”
Give parents professional support and pathways to leadership.Promote moms into leadership positions so they are role models in the workplace, and give them the support they need. “Everyone wants to do a good job, so give us the tools to succeed in both work and life, and you’ll have a better associate,” says Hila Roberts, an Atlanta-based merchant at Home Depot and mother to a 6-year old daughter and 3-year old son.
Roberts says there are a lot of things companies can do to support parents. “Home Depot offers onsite daycare through Bright Horizons, plus 10 days of subsidized backup care. I have lunch with my son once a week. It gives us on-on-one time—which doesn’t take away from work because you have to eat—and personalizes family in the workplace.”
Remember that it takes a village. When I was working in market research with three young kids, my girlfriends were indispensable. We coordinated with one another and helped each other raise our kids, such as by enrolling them in the same after-school activities so we could take turns carpooling. I believe having a circle of women to rely on is a secret to success for both work and home life.
“Similar to building a successful startup, it also takes a village to succeed at work and at home,” says Amanda Cashin, Vice President of Illumina Accelerator, which helps entrepreneurs create genomics startups, and mother of a 1-year old son. “I have a very supportive husband, family and friends, and I have had the privilege of having mentors who have believed in me throughout the years. I’m also part of a biotech women’s group who support each other as we advance. Our pledge this year is to help one female advance to the C-suite or to a board.”
Offer inclusive paid leave. If we want to attract and retain best talent and not just the available talent, then we need to create parental policies that matter, that work and that adjust for employees’ life stages.
Having inclusive leave policies in place will help normalize caregiving in the workplace. This isn’t a woman’s issue. This isn’t a parent’s issue. This is everyone’s issue, because having a workforce that enables it’s employees to take care of themselves and those they love is in all of our best interest. Some legislation to watch is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act that was introduced last week, which would allow both men and women up to 12 weeks of paid leave for personal responsibilities, such as the birth or adoption of a child, or caregiving for a parent or spouse.
Caregivers make the best leaders today, yet we’re losing our best talent to caregiving! The Modern Family Index also finds that 89% of American workers think that working moms bring out the best in employees, and rate working moms as more diplomatic, better listeners, better team players and calmer in a crisis as compared to working dads and employees without children.
The workplace today needs leaders with traits traditionally associated with femininity—such as empathy, nurturing and collaboration—now more than ever. When we support mothers in the workplace and normalize caregiving for fathers, we all win. The time for equality is now.
Shelley Zalis is CEO of The Female Quotient, which is in the business of gender equality. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.