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Maternity and the Glass Ceiling

With gender pay gap data showing that women’s progression slows mid-career, firms need to address why their working mums are still experiencing a glass ceiling if they want to increase gender diversity at senior levels and reap the rewards that will bring.

Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert

Firms are investing in attraction strategies to bring more women into their organisations, as well as putting in place leadership programmes to develop their female talent.

In the work I do with women going through the maternity transition, I’m hired by firms that are keen to see their returning mums stay on their career pathways and continue to progress. They recognise that they have to remove the barriers in place that are preventing their talented women rising up through their organisations, if they are ever going to increase gender diversity at senior levels and close their gender pay gaps.

Women reaching senior posts: slow growth

In spite of all their efforts, however, there is still a glass ceiling for women, as we can see in slow growth in numbers of women reaching senior posts. Today only 5% of C-Suite roles are held by women. The Office for National Statistics reported in December 2021 that the gender pay gap quadruples when women reach their 40s, rising from 3% to 12%, which the ONS attributes to parenthood.

Research undertaken by the Government Equalities Office in 2018 found that working mums were half as likely as working dads to be promoted.

Flexible working – not enough?

Often organisations put the focus on women – giving them training and coaching to raise confidence, encourage them to consider themselves as leadership material and put themselves forward for promotion.

Firms increasingly offer flexible and hybrid working options to staff as well, recognizing that women take on more domestic and caring responsibilities than men and they need to work around those to be able to participate equally when it comes to paid work.

It’s great to see organisations investing and removing barriers to women in this way, but in work I do with women going through the maternity transition I see that this isn’t enough.

Maternity bias: well meaning but harmful

There is still a glass ceiling preventing women, particularly, working mums, getting promoted. What is going on?

It’s often not the women themselves that need fixing or training. The women I talk to and work with are fully aware of their value to their organisation and their ability to take on more responsibility.

Often what gets in the way is maternity bias that they face. This comes about due to the stereotypes that people have when it comes to the capability and commitment of women when they are expectant or working mums.

Women face these biases anyway, but they are compounded by motherhood. While working dads are perceived as being more responsible and needing to pay the mortgage, reinforcing an assumption that they are going to be a loyal and motivated employee, the opposite is true of working mums.

The assumption this time is that they have other priorities and even if they want to come back and progress, they won’t be capable of that.

‘Just take it easy for now, don’t take too much on’
‘As she’s been away I don’t know if she will be able to handle this role when she comes back’
‘She can’t take on line management if she is wants to work part time’
‘She doesn’t realise what it’s going to be like have a baby and working at the same time’

Often managers mean well, but when they make assumptions like this, they immediately put barriers in place.

I see the impact of this in my 1:1 work with women who have put themselves forward for promotion, but aren’t successful. They do everything right, but they don’t get the post and the feedback they are given is all too often a symptom of maternity bias.

What do women themselves think?

Well, they aren’t putting it down to their own lack of confidence or capability. The women I work with are annoyed and frustrated and calling this out as a problem with existing workplace cultures and processes. They know they aren’t the problem and they are prepared to vote with their feet.

‘They wouldn’t have given that feedback to a man’
‘I’m going to give it six months and if I don’t get promoted, I will leave and go to a company that is a better fit for me’
‘They set me up to fail’
‘When I asked if the interview panel if they could hold the role until the end of my maternity leave, as I wanted it so much I was prepared to come back early, they said I was accusing them of maternity discrimination’
‘Why should I behave more like them to be promoted? I’m not a middle-aged man who’s been to public school, I don’t speak like them or approach things in the same way, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing a good job’


Usually hiring managers aren’t aware of the barriers they are putting in place. It’s not intentional, but it still means that women aren’t given equal opportunity to take a seat at the table.

There are simple steps organisations can take to address this issue. Unless they look at this and address it, the glass ceiling will remain firmly in place.

Women going through the maternity transition will continue to miss out on promotions, and organisations will not close their gender pay gaps or achieve their gender diversity targets. The glass ceiling has wide-ranging implications:

A lack of workforce diversity has been clearly shown to decrease competitiveness and profits.

Increasingly organisations are assessing the diversity of their suppliers when assessing who to award a contract to.

When women are not able to fulfil their career aspirations this impacts on wellbeing and engagement, not to mention retention.

Doing nothing and hoping this will get better as firms recruit more women into early career roles isn’t going to work. Even in sectors where there is a good proportion of women in lower pay quartiles, they will fall out of the talent pipeline when they become parents if these cultural, systemic issues aren’t addressed. There aren’t enough women making it through this glass ceiling to shift company cultures to make it more welcoming to women who will be having babies in the future.

What companies need to do

We’re working with a range of companies to address this issue:

Maternity bias – we train hiring managers to understand what this is and how to avoid it.

Read about how Housing21 are tackling maternity bias through its programme of virtual events. As part of its International Women’s Day events, we partnered with Housing21 to present a live, interactive Q&A session to help managers in the organisation understand the challenges faced by returning mums, how that impacts on the gender pay gap and what they can do to help women successfully re-engage after parenthood.

Process – we also work with companies to evaluate their promotion processes to ensure they have clear, transparent criteria and standardized feedback. Firms need to make it easy for women to apply and be successful while they are on maternity leave.

Maternity best practice – organisations need to ensure women continue to be aware of training and development opportunities throughout their maternity transition, including while they are on leave.

Evaluate – track the career pathways of women post maternity and ask for their feedback on promotion processes. Did they perceive it as fair? Evaluate the feedback they are given and compare it to that given to other interviewees.

Let’s work together

If you’d like to remove your glass ceiling in your organisation, drop me a message to discuss how we can help. We have a range of solutions including maternity bias training and a promotion framework, to create a best practice approach that will ensure your returning mums continue to thrive.

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn on 25 April here:

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