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Employers Can Benefit from Working Mothers' Leadership Skills

A woman and a child working at a desk in an office.

​Motherhood can be a valuable training ground for developing skills that prove useful in the workplace. Moms get high marks from co-workers for diplomacy, communicating, multitasking and remaining calm under fire, according to recent research from Bright Horizons, which operates more than 1,000 early-education centers and preschools in the U.S.

In fact, 91 percent of working Americans said mothers can bring unique skills to leadership roles, and 85 percent said being a mother helps a woman prepare for challenges she will face as a business leader, it found.

However, motherhood also comes with a so-called workplace penalty. Not only is there a motherhood wage gap, but mothers also face major obstacles to attaining leadership positions.

The result: "They're being passed over for career-advancing opportunities simply because they bear the title of 'mom,' " according to Bright Horizons. The observation comes from its Modern Family Index, based on an online survey conducted with 994 parents and 1,149 nonparents in the U.S. last year.

Workplace cultures perpetuate the idea "that mothers don't work as hard as their peers, or [they] are incapable of managing family and work responsibilities" and are less dedicated to their careers than fathers, according to the Watertown, Mass.-based company.

Additionally, a majority of the working mothers surveyed said they thought they were held to a higher standard if they wanted a leadership position and believed there were barriers preventing them from becoming leaders:

  • 73 percent think they get fewer career-advancement opportunities than women who are not mothers; 71 percent of female respondents who are not mothers agreed this was the case.
  • 72 percent of the working mothers and fathers said women are penalized in their careers for starting families, while men are not.
  • 37 percent of the working mothers feel they have access to as many professional opportunities as the rest of their workplace peers.

Traditionally, movers and shakers would be defined as people who work long hours, for example, said Maribeth Bearfield, Bright Horizons CHRO. Managers' and co-workers' perceptions of mothers as less dedicated or less engaged than their male or nonparent colleagues make "women feel like they might be passed up for a promotion." Bearfield recalled one woman, who was being considered for a promotion, who waited to tell her manager she was pregnant until after the promotion decision was made.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

"As employers, we need to be a lot more sensitive to women who are pregnant … and [those] coming back [to the workforce] as new parents," Bearfield said.

Some organizations offer re-entry programs for employees who temporarily leave the workforce for maternity leave and other caregiving responsibilities. Bright Horizons pairs a sponsor or mentor with new moms when they return to work.

And moms have to take charge of their careers, Bearfield added, and stay current with what is happening in their industry and with their employer.

Hold Authentic Conversations 

Unconscious bias could be at work, she suggested, when a mother is not considered for certain assignments. A supervisor may not consider her for a career-growth assignment involving travel, for example, under the assumption she would turn it down.

"Let's not be the deciders of the person's career," Bearfield said. "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?' "

Have those conversations in the moment—not at performance review time, when the opportunity for new assignments or promotions may have long passed.

Find out what kind of support working mothers need to grow their careers, said Autumn Manning, co-founder and brand evangelist for Austin, Texas-based Kazoo, a recognition, rewards and employee-feedback platform and performance management provider.

"What do our working mothers want? How many women aren't raising their hands for promotions, and why not? Educate managers; the data is out there," she said.

When organizations find out what working mothers want, senior leaders must support them. That support can be as nuanced, for example, as leaders not showing disdain when a mother leaves early to pick up her child from day care or school, Bearfield noted.

And as overt as matching actions to words, noted Manning.

"I cannot just say, 'We support working parents; we have flexibility.' I have to live it, too. If I leave at 4 p.m., people know my daughter's gymnastics practice is important to me. They see me prioritizing my daughter and still see me running the business."

And while mothers may have the skills that position them as leaders, those characteristics may be invisible to others. Bright Horizons found that 37 percent of mothers surveyed worry that, with senior positions in the workforce dominated by men, they don't fit the mold of a leader.

"There are tools, ways you can identify their strengths. What were they being recognized for before they left for maternity leave?" Manning asked. "Many systems enable leadership to identify those [characteristics in] real time—with real-time recognition—and the data is there to tap into," she said.

She also recommended teaching women to recognize their skills and advocate for themselves.

 "Help them see the skills they see at home and work are strong leadership characteristics."


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