We’ve just celebrated Mothers Day here in the UK, taking the opportunity for at least one day of the year to openly express our love and gratitude to the person who birthed us into the world and brought us up (and barring a few exceptions that’s the same person). Up and down the land restaurants will have been sold out for Sunday lunch, garage forecourts will have been stripped of flowers and the chocolate industry will have had its next huge spike in sales after Valentine’s Day. (My posting to celebrate my Mum).

It’s a pity that we don’t seem to love mothers inside the workplace (even though we’ve all had one). The commerce space and big business is apparently much less tolerant of women who have children. In my research of women, I meet so many who were advised at some point in their career (at job application or promotion time) NOT to mention, or draw attention to, the fact that they were a Mother. Why? Because it doesn’t look good to the employer.

I’ve been speaking with Professor Shelley Correll, Director of the Michelle R Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She’s been telling me about the research that points to a Motherhood Penalty. When you look into this you begin to see that it is universal and definitely is one of the things that can hold women back from the top jobs in business. I’ve just read about a study in Israel which says “the majority of women think that appearing single and childless is more attractive” to employers.

In the USA there is a particular body of research that Professor Correll refers to which shows that mothers who work get paid 5 to 7% less per child than women without children ….  who have the same job, the same level of education and the same level of seniority. They are otherwise identical apart from having children. And the more they have, the worse it is for them financially.

The Institute’s own research also found strong evidence of bias against mothers. After seeing a resume for a job and then finding out that the person is a mother, what follows is that person is then 100% less likely to get the job.  People see “mother” and think “less committed”.  No matter what is on the profile and how relevant the information, being a mother means she looks less committed to the employer.  Watch and hear my conversation with Professor Correll on video.

So there is a perception that women may be less committed to work or have too many other calls on their time or their thinking abilities are perhaps diminished. Who knows what the real reasons are but consider this ….. what if having children and being a mother actually enhanced your capacities and in some fields, made you a better worker?

Brain changes after birthing
There’s plenty of research to indicate that hormonal fluctuations create structural changes in the brain. We know this happens during puberty so there is good reason to believe that the female brain could have substantial remodeling as a result of the dramatic hormonal shifts that happen during the three big life phases of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding in order to prepare for being a mother to a dependent child. Research presented in the Harvard Business Review in 2006, shows that rat mothers outperform virgin rats in navigating mazes and capturing prey. Could it be that a higher level of commitment is needed to ensure that the young are fed and so the brain is given better skills for more successful foraging?

Mothers have to develop an extraordinary large skill set
In addition to any hormonally triggered brain adaptations, most mothers will tell you that the skills required to run a family often far exceed anything a business might require of them. Women have to learn very quickly to organise their lives and households to a much higher degree, juggling school programmes and after school activities for sometimes several children. Mediation techniques become very refined as desperate mothers develop ways to curtail arguments and ensure that fairness and peace prevails amongst squabbling siblings. In addition, there is the unquantifiable mastery of reading a child’s needs and observing how they grow, develop and flourish in the family unit, so that ultimately, they have what they individually need to reach their potential.

Parenting is expansive, opening people up to new values
I would imagine most corporate careers don’t tax people’s capacities anything like parenting does and yet there is a tendency to completely invalidate all these skills in mothers which they develop from being a parent. And we haven’t even looked into the values shift that occurs in a human as they mature and become responsible for the well-being and safe future of the next generation, who are at home doing their homework waiting for supper.

Priorities are bound to change, as is how a person sees the world and the context they bring to the decisions they make. I am guessing a parent could in fact be a much better value employee with their enhanced capacities for empathy, superior listening skills and a greater sensitivity to the future now that they have offspring who will be inheriting the legacies of their actions.
Do you think that mothers, and parents, add more value to an enterprise?
Watch the video and hear our discussion about the Daughter Effect and the experience of men as fathers.