On days like Women’s Day we like to talk about how women can perfectly manage having kids and a high-flying career. What we don’t like to talk about is the constant scientific evidence indicating that most women have to slow down on their career once they become mothers. We are given the opportunity to be anything, but not everything.

The price that women pay – the motherhood penalty – according to research is twofold – psychological and financial.

Psychological penalty.

Whether a mother works or not she is judged, and somehow the social system imposes guilt on her. While popular culture tends to discuss this aspect, research is still very limited.

Overall, the limited evidence indicates that in order to curb the work-family guilt imposed by society, mothers are more likely to reduce working hours and the time planned for themselves. As a result, young mothers are more likely to experience low levels of well-being, self-confidence, and life satisfaction. These implications motivate mothers to comply with gender norms and thus give priority to family duties.

What we fail to discuss here is that evidence is actually leading us to conclude that maternal employment has minimal impact on the behavior or academic achievements of children. Indeed, there are long term benefits on children associated with maternal employment.

Wage penalty.

The working mum guilt and the lack of support given to mothers within society is imposing a barrier to work. A recent study (”The Child Penalty Atlas” by H. Kleven, C. Landais and G. Leite-Mariante) covering 130 countries shows that 95 per cent of men aged between 25 and 54 are in the labour force, compared to 52 per cent of the women. In developed countries 80 per cent of the gap in labour participation rates is explained by women exiting the labour market after becoming mothers to their first child. Based on these outcomes, policymakers pushing childcare incentives and laws, however, these are not yielding the desired outcomes.

Some points to consider to address the problem….

Government and firms can do more. From a cultural, infrastructural, social, economic, and financial point of view, the world is still not set up and prepared for two working parents. As a result, in most cases, women are paying this price in the majority of cases.

In line with the necessary tax incentives, both the public and private sector need to push on educating societies to make a shift towards a new mentality where working and career mothers become a normality. In addition, intervention is needed through the provision of the necessary support structures for those who do not have it. Whilst there is plenty of assistance with childcare facilities especially at a local level, there is still an issue with school hours and commitments not matching the family hours and lifestyle.  

Mothers can do more. Research indicates that working women are still stigmatized and as a result they are constantly pressured to show that they can do it all. Overcoming this stigma and pressure is key – women need to be kinder to themselves and learn to accept help and support in raising their children.

It is time to start taking proper action. The economic ecosystem should be strengthen to help mothers to reintegrate in the labour market easily and efficiently. The world stands to gain from having more women contributing to their workplace – there is an untapped potential for productivity increases that we are not looking into.

We have many policies in place, but this is obviously and evidently not enough.

Women should not be forced to choose to become anything they want to be, they should be given the opportunity to become everything they want to be.


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