While mothers often feel pressured to downplay the characteristics that make them successful parents for fear of appearing distracted at work, research shows that many of the skills honed in motherhood, such as efficiency, multitasking and patience, contribute to professional competence and success.
Keeping mothers in the workforce, encouraging them to return after the Great Resignation and helping them rise through the ranks requires that supervisors and companies expand their understanding of the many transferrable skills forged in mothering, and create working environments that work for parents.
Moms and leadership
Women are no strangers to double binds: exhorted to take charge only to be labeled threatening, or encouraged to own their competence only to be cast as less likable. The same often happens around parenting.
When men announce impending fatherhood, they are congratulated and often see their incomes rise. When women announce impending motherhood, they are also congratulated, and then almost immediately asked what they plan to do about work. “Not only is there a motherhood wage gap,” according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “but mothers also face major obstacles to attaining leadership positions.”
According to an analysis by a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, men’s earnings increase by 6% when they become fathers. Women’s earnings decrease by 4% for each child she has.
Organizations, and even women themselves, often underestimate how valuable motherhood is as a training ground for highly sought-after workplace skills. According to recent research from Bright Horizons (operators of more than 1,000 early-education centers and preschools in the U.S.), moms get high marks from co-workers for diplomacy, communicating, multitasking and remaining calm under fire. Helping women claim those skills, and educating organizations to recognize and value them might help decrease the motherhood wage gap.
Helping women make the connection
Leaders and organizations must take responsibility for creating working environments that value a diverse range of leadership skills and styles. They must also highlight unconscious bias against mothers that can show up even in efforts to be considerate, such as assuming mothers will not want to travel for work, accept an international assignment or take on a larger role.
"Let's not be the deciders of the person's career," Bright Horizons CHRO, Maribeth Bearfield, shared in an interview with SHRM. "Instead, talk to that employee, talk to that woman and ask, 'What do you want to be involved in? How do we help you advance your career and integrate family and work?' "
Women themselves can also help advance the conversation by learning to recognize new skills often developed through motherhood, and making the connection to critical leadership characteristics. The 2022 survey, Strengthen The Momforce
, conducted by McKinney marketing agency found that, on first reaction, women sometimes fail to see how skills they’ve honed through motherhood support those they rely on at work.
Once asked to reflect on that crossover, however, mothers quickly recognized synergies and developed a more comprehensive picture of themselves as leaders with a full range of strengths and skills that apply in both home and work settings. They observed that many skills they fine-tuned in their role as mothers applied equally well in the workplace. That includes efficient problem solving, remaining calm under stress, an ability to prioritize competing demands, resourcefulness, competency in adapting communication to the situation and demonstrating empathy for others.
Tapping into moms who lead
“In today’s hybrid and remote work environments, it pays to have women ― mothers or otherwise ― in leadership positions,” says Marcel Schwantes, founder of Leadership from the Core, in Inc. magazine. “But for mothers specifically, many of the workplace skills that are bolstered by their experience as moms and caregivers seamlessly translate to leadership roles.” Schwantes and others make these suggestions to help managers retain and hire women leaders.
- Recognize the challenges parents face at work and at home, especially mothers who continue to carry more than their share of domestic duties in dual-earner households.
- Embrace flexible arrangements that enable mothers to perform some portion of their responsibilities outside of standard working hours and/or offsite to maximize their contributions.
- Acknowledge bias and train hiring managers and others to look beyond resume gaps to find benefits accrued through full-time parenting.
- Call out in job descriptions skills often honed through motherhood that also clearly apply in the workforce, including efficiency, multitasking, empathy and an ability to communicate in diverse settings.
- Connect mothers with mentors who can help them transition back to the workplace in a safe environment where they can talk candidly about challenges they might face and update skills after an absence from paid work.
For moms themselves, recognizing that you have cultivated skills that are as applicable to the boardroom as they are to child care can help you claim the unique range of abilities you now bring to your role as a strong workplace contributor and multifaceted leader.