developUs Blog

May 11, 2024 in Blog

The Motherhood Penalty: A Call for Cultural Change

As we approach Mother’s Day, my thoughts go into the dual journey of motherhood and professional development. Could it be because I have teens that loved Barbie last year? That my alma mater (a former Women’s College) just announced it is closing and as a result I’m hyper-fixated on powerful women making a difference? Nah – I think it’s really because I’m a working “mother of multiples,” aka M.O.M., see what I did there? Let’s just say I am uniquely positioned to discuss the “motherhood penalty”— a term coined by sociologists, that reveals in the workplace, working mothers encounter disadvantages in pay, perceived competence, and benefits relative to childless women. At this point, you know my blogs are personal and ask you to think of a better future. Today, let’s think about how we can better support working mothers, ensuring they don’t have to choose between their career and their children, a decision I am all too familiar with.

My Early Days as a M.O.M

Looking back at 2008, it brings a mix of profound joy and seemingly insurmountable challenges. It was a year marked by the Global Financial Crisis. The GCF was the most severe worldwide economic crisis since the Great Depression. So many people lost their jobs, businesses, and homes. For me, it was the year I learned what it meant to juggle a new, demanding role at work and the demands of early motherhood. The twins arrived in December, a joyful, yet overwhelmingly exhausting time. I remember the nights, sometimes blurred together, filled with both babies crying simultaneously, and me, struggling alone while my husband worked two states away during the week. Those first few months were a trial by fire, teaching me resilience and exposing the harsh and unforgiving realities of the “motherhood tax”. 

Navigating Work as a New Mother: No Easy Feat

Returning to work was like the cold-water plunge challenge we saw all over social media a few years ago. You have to experience it for yourself because no one can prepare you for that bone chilling feeling of ice-cold water shocking you to your very core. Unfortunately, work-from-home was not yet a fixture in corporate culture, and my early days back to work were fraught with the pressure to prove that motherhood hadn’t lessened my value to the company. I wanted to answer every email in a timely fashion, I came overprepared for every meeting, doing my best to remain visible and appear valuable. 

I remember more vividly than I’d like, less than ten weeks postpartum, attending a trade show in New Orleans—my mind wrought with the images of my devastated honeymoon city post-Katrina, my body constantly and shamelessly reminding me that I was nursing twins, all while smiling and engaging potential clients. To make this traumatic week even more painful, it was also Valentine’s Day, and instead of a romantic celebration with my husband, I found myself in a bathroom stall at the event, alone, using a breast pump, sobbing, feeling I was failing everyone—my daughters, my employer, my husband, me. The stark contrast between the demands of my professional environment and my needs as a new mother could not have been more vivid. This couldn’t be the corporate dream I imagined in college. I just couldn’t be. 

Be the Change You Want to See

Naturally, these experiences were pivotal. They didn’t just shape my motherhood; they shaped my career, my life. I realized that workplaces needed not only to accommodate, but actively support working mothers. It shouldn’t be considered a luxury; it should be the norm. So, when I became a people leader, especially of mothers, I led by example. What was within my span of control, I fought tooth and nail to never have someone under my watch feel that being a mother and working was an impossible balancing act. I wanted everyone on my team to know that family comes first and you’re an irreplaceable parent, an irreplaceable spouse, daughter, and son. As harsh as this sounds, we’re all replaceable employees. Your role as parent is irreplaceable and immensely important. Your children will always need you more than a job does. Your family will always value you more than a company can. So be that good parent because then I know you’ll be a better employee.

Embracing Identity Beyond the Workplace

Fast forward to today, where the culture at developUs champions flexibility and genuine understanding—qualities that every workplace should strive to embody. Here, I am not just a leader; I am a mother who does not need to downplay this crucial aspect of my identity. It’s liberating, really. You have no idea how light and unburdened this can make you feel, almost as if you can soar. Yes, it might sound sentimental and cheesy, but I love what I do, and it hardly feels like work. I am simply allowed to be “me.”

When we live in a world where people’s identities are so closely tied to their employers, having this freedom is significant. Don’t believe me? Does this scenario sound familiar?

Stranger: “Nice to meet you, Nina. Tell me about yourself.” 
Nina: “Well, I work for developUs, an Employee Development firm in the L&D space, yada, yada…”


Stranger: “Nice to meet you, Nina. Tell me about yourself.” 
Nina: “Sure! Well, I make teams better and leaders stronger, one person at a time. Oh, and if we were to tee it up, I’d probably win.”

If you were to ask me, it’s what I do that defines me, not merely where I work. When you consider this, my identity expands: I am a mom, a wife, and I just happen to work at developUs. This shift from defining oneself primarily through work to embracing a fuller personal identity is profound, and it’s a transition I know many struggle with.

How many of us say we work for XYZ rather than describe who we truly are? How many stares would we get at the corporate mixer if we answered the “What do you do?” with “Well, I have 2 daughters and I’m a mom most days, but I also act as a counselor, chauffeur, coach and stylist other days.” What if we could show up as a mom and not be scorned or considered less than capable, less focused? That’s a world I want to live in. 

Empowering Mothers, Enriching Workplaces

Empowerment starts with the assurance that a mother’s workplace embraces, values and supports her dual roles. It means creating environments where speaking up about family needs isn’t a career-limiting move. At developUs, we live what we preach: we facilitate work environments where mothers thrive without the constant battle of choosing between their professional and personal lives. This approach isn’t just about retention; it’s about fostering a workplace culture that celebrates and supports diversity in life experiences. “Never miss a deadline” and “Raise your hand and ask for help” are lived, not just some quote on a wall. They are also how I can go to track meets that start at 3 pm on a Wednesday or basketball games that start at 4:30 pm and support both of my daughters and build core memories of mom being there with no fear or judgment from my employer. It’s actually an expectation that I go.

Fellow employers and leaders, understanding the “motherhood penalty” is the bare minimum; use this blog as an opportunity to act… to dismantle it. This means listening genuinely to the needs of working mothers, offering flexible working arrangements, supporting childcare needs, and ensuring that career progression opportunities are not silently curtailed by motherhood. At developUs, we help organizations implement these changes, creating a blueprint for a supportive, inclusive workplace. Yes, I had to include a shameless plug—need help around this? Call me. Seriously.

Moving Forward with Purpose This Mother’s Day

As we approach Mother’s Day, let’s not just celebrate with flowers and cards but forge pathways that support mothers in their dual roles at home and in their careers. At developUs Worldwide, we recognize that real change goes beyond surface-level acknowledgements—it requires a deep, organizational commitment to understand and address the “motherhood penalty.”

Our mission is rooted in creating work environments where being a mother is an integral aspect of one’s identity that enriches the workplace. We strive for a culture where the responsibilities of motherhood are not just accommodated but are respected and valued as part of the diversity that drives innovation and empathy within our teams.

Let this Mother’s Day be a marker of our commitment to making every day a supportive and empowering one for mothers everywhere.

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