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Motherhood Penalty

When it comes to gender equitable workplace policies, the benefits have become templated across organizations. Hybrid work model, maternity leave, welcome gifts for new born child and new mothers, menstrual leave, flexible work hours. But when you ask Working Mothers, how do these benefits impact critical issues like pay parity and long term career progression, you will find very little evidence of impact .


Unfortunately despite these (undoubtedly encouraging) measures, motherhood remains one of the biggest challenges that every woman faces in her career journey; something that can bring even the highest flying woman crashing back to earth. Sadly, for too many women, motherhood is what shunts them from the fast lane to the slow lane at their place of work.


Picture Credit : Unsplash

So when I see companies get self congratulatory about their progressive policies or welcome gifts or even paid maternity benefits, I agree that these are good things but I wonder how they can make up for the career plateau that their female employees turned mothers so often find themselves in.


As per a survey done in 2018, 73% of Indian women leave their jobs after giving birth. Among those who do return to work, 48% leave their jobs within four months. In the UK, 54% of women are employed below their potential due to high childcare cost, wide pay gap, and limited choice of flexible roles. On social media, horror stories of women in maternity made redundant before their worse-performing male colleagues abound, as do stories of stalled promotions, lost bonuses, lower pay rises, etc. For the woman, not only is this deeply unfair, it leads to a further vicious cycle. Once the woman is the lower earner in the family, it becomes ‘rational’ to expect her to de-prioritise her career, do more of household chores and own child care, while her spouse becomes the gallant breadwinner.



So, the question arises, how do we break this self- reinforcing cycle and how can organizations play a role in this?

What we need is a massive shift in our whole mindset to truly build equitable workplaces. Here are some things that organizations could do:

  1. Change of narrative: Look at motherhood as a time when the mother acquires a new skill set rather than seeing it as a vacation

  2. Make it easy for the new mother to adapt to her role. In many countries, there are laws that protect jobs for women on maternity leave but managers do find creative ways to offer women more junior roles or lower paying roles

  3. Make it flexible for both parents to take parental leave. Countries like Iceland, Norway, Finland have made significant progress towards gender parity due to legislated equality of parental leaves. Both parents have the option to take extended parental leave, thereby denying employers the presumption that female hires are riskier than male hires.

  4. Measure disparity. Do cohort analysis to identify anomalies in career growth between men and women. Set a component of executive compensation to eliminate these anomalies.

  5. Offer flexible working hours and a hybrid work model for women to work around their child/ren. Offer free or subsidized access to an onsite or nearby creche.

  6. Put less emphasis on facetime and long hours but measure performance through productivity and end results.

  7. Introduce specific recruitment programs targeted at reabsorbing women back into the workforce after an extended maternity break.

  8. Consider separating the compensation function from the recruiting function (i.e. exclude the people who decide on the package to be offered from the decision on whether to make the offer). Make the CV gender blind at the point where the package is being put together to avoid hidden bias.


Will it happen? Maybe, slowly, eventually but I am not holding my breath. There are exceptions of course - companies that truly get that this is not a charitable cause; that tapping into the full spectrum of human potential is the smart play. But for every such company, there are maybe 10 others who are primarily motivated by optics and another 100 maybe who cannot be bothered. Still, slow or fast, easy or not - this is the fight and this is a good time to acknowledge both the progress that has been made and the progress that remains to be made.




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