In honour of this year’s International Women’s Day, themed #BreakTheBias, let’s look at how maternity bias is affecting women in the workplace, and what organisations are doing to help.
Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert
Research shows that maternal bias is the strongest type of gender bias (1). We all have biases, which are rooted in our personal experiences and ideas we’ve developed, due to what we’ve been told or have seen. These create assumptions that affect the judgements we make about people and how we relate to them.
What are we assuming?
When we think about motherhood, it’s probably true to say that the vast majority of us have pre-conceived ideas about what a good mother is, how parents feel about their children, about the priorities mothers have, etc. These assumptions are deeply rooted in how we were parented, and in the roles and attitudes people have around us help form them.
In the UK, women’s careers have traditionally taken a back seat after children. Even today women find it challenging to progress after becoming parents. Women are hugely under-represented in senior roles, with Women in the Workplace 2021 finding that while nearly 50% of roles are filled by women at entry level, only 5% of C-suite jobs are held by females. The numbers are even more dire for women of colour.
So we don’t see enough women in senior roles who are blending work with family life. It’s easy to assume from this that working mums don’t want to progress at work or that they are not capable of doing so.
What’s really going on?
Research published by the Government Equalities Office in 2019 showed that working mums are half as likely as working dads to be promoted (women are often assumed to have other priorities now while men are assumed to be more responsible and ambitious, because they are ‘the bread winner’).
Those findings were from the public sector, which has relatively high levels of flexible working on offer. The situation is likely to be even worse away from the public sector, particularly in male-dominated sectors, such as engineering, manufacturing, construction and IT.
We can see that manifested in their gender pay gap data. Their gaps stubbornly resist narrowing, because while organisations sometimes attract more women at entry level, cultures which have maternity biases do not continue to retain -- and develop those women to their full potential -- once they plan to have children.
The ONS announced in December 2021 that the gender pay gap quadruples when women hit their 40s due to parenthood. The Academy for Engineers has reported that 57% of women leave the engineering register compared to 17% of men by the time they are in their mid-forties. These numbers show that we clearly aren’t living in a society where women are able to continue their career pathway when they become parents.
It’s easy to make assumptions about commitment or ambition, but the truth is more complex than that.
I work 1:1 with many expectant and returning mums, and a common theme that comes up is that once women announce they are pregnant, people start to behave differently towards them. Now they have raised a flag saying they are in the motherhood camp, there’s a shift.
People assume all sorts of things about them and those assumptions can create challenges for women who want to continue on their career pathway, as most do. There are often confronted with pre-conceived ideas around ‘baby brain’, lower levels of commitment and ambition, and being made to feel that they are difficult and unreasonable, because of their need to work flexibly or sometimes remotely.
This mismatch between other people’s biases and their own perspective means that returning mums can begin to feel like they are not understood or valued, and they begin to dis-engage. They start to think about leaving and will seek out other employers which they perceive as being more welcoming to working mums.
Becoming a mum is a choice, though, isn’t it? Well, yes, motherhood is, but the choices mums have to make about work are usually a Hobsons choice. We have to ask ourselves, do those same choices also apply to fathers, who presumably usually also make a choice to become a parent.
Women want to spend time with their families and will usually prioritise the needs of their children. Do dad’s face the same pressures? Not really. While a growing number of men want and do play an equal role in parenting, mums still carry an increased burden of domestic and caring work, so they have a lot more to juggle and work tends to have to give. This was even more the case during the pandemic pressures, as women shouldered the lion’s share of caring responsibilities and home schooling.
All this means that women are often unable to take on a role if there is little flexibility, long hours or travel involved, because they are already doing a full-time job at home already.
This fuels the biases people already hold in the workplace. They expect women to ‘choose’ to press the brake on their career development, or to take a role that is less demanding, and they assume that is what they want and what other women will do. And when that happens, time and time again, so the bias gets reinforced.
In the worst case, this leads to maternity discrimination because or women end up raising grievances because they do not feel that they were treated respectfully or fairly.
How does this impact on organisations?
There are wide-ranging and profound implications for employers.
Recruitment -- people like to work with/hire people like themselves, so working mums face a barrier, particularly in male dominated sectors and at more senior levels. Often pregnant women don’t even bother applying for jobs.
Employment gaps – women can end up having to occupationally downgrade to work around their children. As one returning mum explained in our Maternity Returners Survey:
“I could not return to the first line manager role on a part-time basis and had to take a lesser role. Confidence suffered and I have never returned to a management position.”
Retention -- If women don’t feel understood and valued, they won’t successfully re-engage after maternity leave, and look to move on, once they’re past the baby stage and have head space to apply for jobs elsewhere.
Promotion -- When people hold biases about working mums, it means women have to do more than others to be given the same opportunities. When they get things wrong the consequences can be more severe because of the assumption they are less competent. Sometimes women are able to step up, but find it a challenge to blend their professional and family lives. As one returning mum said in our survey:
“I recently got a promotion (within a year of returning to work). However, I do feel like I am not as good as people without children.”
Wellbeing – It's stressful trying to fit in, when you don’t feel you can be yourself at work, when you’re a problem. As one expectant mum said on our Maternity Returners Survey,
“I was made to feel like I was leaving work undone when going away and made to feel very stressed and guilty.”
Reputation – With all the current pressures organisations are facing recruiting and keeping their talent, to attract working mums they need a family-friendly reputation. To achieve that often companies have to create significant cultural shifts, to develop a more welcoming and inclusive environment for returning mums. This can make all the difference, as one woman noted in our survey:
“My previous manager assumed I might want to quit or go part time. I feel like they wrote off my career. My current manager is very supportive of my wanting to build a career whilst being a mum.”
What are organisations doing that is addressing maternal bias?
Allyship is key. Everyone in the organisation can play a role, once they understand their own bias and how that impacts on expectant and returning mums.
Dads can be supported to do more at home.
Managers can be given guidance and training so that they are able to confidently and consistently support their colleagues going through maternity. This has wider benefits because it is a great opportunity to upskill managers, helping them think about people who are different to them from a new perspective, human to human, with empathy.
To discuss how your organisation can create a welcoming and inclusive culture for women returning to work after maternity leave, message me to book a free scoping call.
Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 112, No. 5 (March 2007), pp. 1297-1338
McKinsey’s and Co’s Women in the Workplace 2021 Report. Available at: www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
Gender equality at work: research on the barriers to women's progression, Government Equalities Office (October 2019). Available at www.gov.uk/government/publications/gender-equality-at-work-research-on-the-barriers-to-womens-progression
The Gender Pay Gap Report 2021, Office of National Statistics https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/genderpaygapintheuk/2021#the-gender-pay-gap
Closing the engineering gender pay gap, Royal Academy of Engineering & WISE (January 2020). Available at www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/closing-the-engineering-gender-pay-gap
Maternity Returners Survey: Initial Results available at www.emmawaltham.com/post/maternity-returners-survey-initial-results