The role of leaders in supporting working mothers


Research shows that maternal bias is the strongest type of gender bias built on the assumption that women become less committed to their work if they decide to have children.


Leaders play a critical role in breaking the bias and retaining working mothers, helping them to progress, occupy positions in the boardroom, and work towards eliminating the pay gap - setting a tone of agility, adaptability and flexibility that enables women to flourish.


Addressing the challenges


According to Gallup’s research, since the start of the pandemic, women report higher rates of stress than men, and they are more likely to report that their mental health was negatively affected by the pandemic. Working women also report higher on-the-job burnout and the gender gap in burnout has only widened during the pandemic.


These pressures are even greater for working mothers, who are more likely to say their life has been disrupted "a great deal" by the crisis, and they're more likely to report emotional and mental distress. For working mothers, the pandemic significantly increased the burden of unpaid care and household responsibilities, and these pressures have pushed many women to exit the workforce or find part-time work.


At the same time, Gallup finds that women are generally more engaged at work than men, and have higher rates of work satisfaction, too, even during the pandemic and the plummeting wellbeing and rising burnout it brought. Organisations with more women executives are more likely to outperform those with fewer senior women and leaders can’t afford to ignore the hardships that millions of working mothers now face. If organisations respond well by building a more flexible and empathetic workplace, they can retain the employees most affected by the pandemic and nurture a culture in which working mothers have equal opportunity to achieve their potential.


Breaking the maternal bias


When men become parents, they experience a “fatherhood bonus,” – an increase in salary by an average of 6 percent. Women, on the other hand, suffer from a “motherhood penalty,” wherein their wages decrease by 4 percent on average. There are many factors, such as job switching or reduced hours involved, but there is also a level of discrimination by assuming that mothers offer lower work commitment or performance.


Leaders need to be aware of these divergent biases toward fathers and mothers and foster an environment where questioning women’s competence based on their caregiving roles is not accepted. And those leaders who themselves are parents, whether they are a man or a woman, can lead by example in being vocal and transparent about juggling their responsibilities and the importance of their family role.


Too often, leaders go into conversations with assumptions of what employees want or need. Instead, it's important for them to ask what's on the minds of working mothers and really listen. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.