Tales from working mums show many employers are neglecting a vital stream of talent

Organisations need to consider what being a working mother really means and why such a great pool of ambition and ability deserves far more attention, says Jane Johnson

Credit: Antonio Diaz/iStockphoto/Getty Images

“When I returned from maternity leave and wanted to carry on working from home a few days a week I was told this was not acceptable – because if someone wanted to work from home to stay with their dog they would have to let them, as they let me work from home to be with my baby.”

Mothers returning to the workplace still aren’t always understood or appreciated, as this story from the recent experiences of a working mum demonstrates. Another mum told us in a similar vein: “I once had a girl at work say to me: ‘I wonder if I can have a shorter week because I have a cat.’”

In spite of the ongoing struggles with recruitment and retention, many organisations don’t always tap into the value and ambition of working mothers. There may have been a transformation in terms of policies and principles when it comes to gender equality, the scrutiny of pay gaps, more women getting into senior management and board positions, and the introduction of flexible working policies, but parenthood and a career still don’t seem to make a good mix.

We wanted to understand more about what was happening – go beyond received wisdom, assumptions and the nagging sense among so many working women that the ‘deal’ they’re being offered at work (and maybe also at home) isn’t as progressive or supportive as it might appear.

Research among more than 2,100 working mums found that half believed their chances of promotion had been negatively impacted just by the simple enough act of asking for flexible work arrangements. They also pointed to problems with ‘fake’ flexibility: companies were happy to offer reduced working hours, but expected the same outputs. “I was told that management loved it when women came back to work four days a week, as they knew they'd get five days’ work out of them for less pay,” said one contributor. Nine in 10 (89 per cent) said their work routines had changed since becoming a parent. That doesn’t always mean more family-friendly working. And two fifths (40 per cent) reported they had needed to do more work tasks outside of normal working hours.

Clearly then, the problem is cultural, a matter of dealing with outdated attitudes of line managers and outdated ways of designing jobs. The issue is the potential for hidden implications: a change in attitudes to returning mothers as career-focused employees, to their reliability, their ability to take on extra responsibilities and their level of ambition. And it’s not just a case of a gender divide, with male staff not able to understand or appreciate women’s experiences. Many working mums report some of the worst instances of negative attitudes and discrimination coming from female colleagues. “I had a job interview and the interviewer started it with the opening line of: ‘I don't know what we're doing here because I need someone who can be flexible,’” said another mum as part of the research. “She made so many assumptions about me because I'm a mother. Needless to say, I didn't get the job. It went to someone who was a father who did not get asked about his ability to be flexible.”

But many returning mothers are just as ambitious, or more ambitious, than they were before. Around two thirds of working mums say their level of ambition has either increased or stayed the same since having children.

For HR, redesigning work not just to be more inclusive, but also to work with the way our lives have changed since the pandemic, will mean access to a stronger, more loyal and engaged stream of talent – of untapped ambition and ability. Women also need to play an active part in that redesign of ways of working, to be given the confidence to negotiate roles on their terms, to push back on what is unreasonable, and to take on the jobs they actually need and want. That means practical support in terms of coaching women and managers before they go on maternity leave and on their return to make for more of a smooth transition. Asked about issues they would want to address, most returners pointed to fundamental issues around mindset: “rebuilding my confidence in backing myself, goal planning and how to drum up some achievable ambition”; “how to balance the mum guilt of working and being a good parent,”; and “how to establish boundaries for work and life outside of work, and to pursue a career rather than just existing in a role”.

Given the costs of recruitment and the competition for talent, employers need to be thinking more in terms of what being a working mother really means and why such a great pool of ambition and ability deserves far more considered attention. They should be thinking about what kinds of action and change – not just compliance with policies – will open the gates. And at the same time, they need to consider the big picture of parenthood, making sure it can be a  genuine shared experience, with shared responsibility for both working and caring, with working dads also feeling able to ask for leave and flexibility. 

Jane Johnson is the founder of Careering into Motherhood. The full findings of the Life as a Working Mother 2023 report can be downloaded here