Although diversity has become a buzzword in the corporate world and its hiring practices, there are groups that continue to be underrepresented in the workforce. In this article, Consultant Laurene Tue explores the unique challenges that come with being a working mother and makes the case that it would benefit firms greatly to stop viewing them as a risk and to start seeing this group as an asset instead.
When I became a mother a few years ago, it felt as if I had stepped into a parallel universe. I began to see the world very differently and it seemed like the world also now saw me in a very different light. I became part of a diverse, global network of women who all had that one thing in common: motherhood. While experiences of motherhood differ greatly, the one constant I observed was the power of a mother’s love. This is not an attack on fathers, but a tribute to the amazing women of the world, whose workload has increased 70% comparatively to men. 1
As a working woman, the aspect of being a mother that disturbed me the most was the underrepresentation of women in general and mothers in particular, at all levels of the workplace. The world is no longer questioning the intelligence and competence of women, so then why are so few given the opportunity to thrive in senior positions? If mothers can be trusted with the day-to-day running of families, why are so few trusted with the running of companies and to what extent is the often-repeated adage ‘the future is female’ still merely lip service?
The Challenges of a Working Mother
It is an open secret that the word ‘liability’ is what springs to mind for many employers when the topic of working mothers is brought up. Paid maternity leave, unpaid leave to look after children, extra sick days from looking after little ones (studies show that one to three-year-olds will on average have six to nine illnesses per year), tiredness from working their second shift (housework and childcare) and more. From an employer’s perspective, it might not seem worth the effort to hire mothers and they could be tempted to circumvent all the above risks by simply not going down that road.
Studies have shown that there is indeed clear bias against mothers seeking employment in traditionally male settings. Furthermore, employment bias has led mothers to hit a so-called Maternal Wall and they are often perceived as undependable. Not only can a workplace be a very hostile environment for a working mother, the knowledge that they are often passed for promotions and are rarely represented in Fortune 500 boardrooms can also be extremely daunting for this very active segment of the working population.
An Asset, Not a Liability
Since becoming a mother, it has become abundantly clear to me that employers are missing out by not tapping into this extremely active segment of the workforce. Motherhood provides women with skills that are highly valued in the workplace such as multi-tasking and staying focused on the big picture, while also prioritizing healthy relationships.2 There is a reason why mums are often referred to as everyday superheroes: they truly manage to do it all and to do it with empathy. Empathetic leadership brings about better performance and is a critical aspect of emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness.3 Similarly, raising children involves making decisions on the spot, acting fast and adapting to different kinds of situations.
Additionally, despite widespread beliefs that mothers are unreliable workers, the fact remains that motherhood forces women to be reliable and consistent because of the many challenges and needs that arise when running a household on top of many other things. All of the above are traits also found to be those possessed by top-performing CEOs during a 10-year study called the “CEO Genome Project” by Harvard Business Review in 2017.4
When is your firm going to invest in attracting and retaining the best mothers?
Companies, colleagues and society can and should support women not out of charity, but because they would all be better off with more mothers in their workplace. This fiercely motivated, skilled and efficient group not only gets work done but does so with purpose, emotional intelligence and experience. A mother’s success does not depend on her competence as much it depends on her support system. You often hear that behind every great man, is a great woman. We need the same for mothers because as much as we would like to believe that getting to the top is based on merit alone, I think that all who have been successful can agree that while it certainly took hard work, the help and support of others was also necessary to climb up the ladder.
A recent study carried out by McKinsey highlighted ways to support women in the workplace with very specific solutions. These included childcare policies, flexible work arrangements, and acknowledging that the challenges faced by single mothers are very different from other women. Equally high on the list is removing the bias in people processes, adjusting the hiring process, and implementing “returnships” for mothers for a gradual comeback to work without their career path being devalued.5
Embracing diversity has been trending in the corporate world for some time and today, there is a record number of female CEOs in the S&P 500 list, the vast majority of whom are mothers. However, we must continue to listen to and empower all types of women in the workplace and support their contribution to the business world.