Of perils and penalties

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Of perils and penalties

Sunday, 12 May 2019 | Pioneer

Of perils and penalties

It’s impossible not to wonder if there is anything more satisfying, beautiful and nurturing than motherhood but there are challenges working mothers face every day. Their issues range from the constant pull between work and kids to more serious fallouts like them abandoning their careers and aspirations. As a mother of two, and a diversity consultant, I come across these conflicts at a personal and professional level. What pains me the most is the existence of child penalty, also known as the motherhood penalty.

Motherhood Penalty refers to the adverse impact on earnings of women who give birth to and bring up children.

It is a known fact that 40 per cent women quit their jobs post maternity to become full time mothers. A lesser known fact is that a higher percentage loses out in increments, promotions and growth. And why does this happen?

First, it is biological, because only women can give birth and lactate. But this is the irrefutable unchangeable law of nature that has no bearing what so ever on the mental capacities and ability of a woman. The extension of the maternity leave was to allow women to take care of their biological needs, to nurse and recuperate, but is often used as a reason not to hire them, promote them or to hold back increments.

Second, it is due to gender bias arising out of social conditioning where the primary responsibility of raising children is placed on mothers.

Third, women are expected to do unpaid work. A working mother goes home, after a full day’s work and puts in significant effort in household duties, including child care. She needs to balance her home and career which inevitably compromises her career prospects and also leads to stress.

The reasons women compromise their careers are easy to grasp, but they have direct and indirect implications as well.

The first and obvious impact is on career continuity. There is a break in their work life.

Then, there are questions raised on their career intentionality — the intentions of women pursuing careers while also navigating motherhood, leading to reduced employment opportunities for them.

The solution here is to acknowledge that women do pay a penalty. It is a fact and we need to address it. We cannot ignore biology, and hence, practical solutions such as granting women time to settle in post maternity, offering childcare support facilities, and lactation facilities are good places for organisations to start with.

The introduction of policies and guidelines that help manager’s lead diverse teams will also be a step in the right direction. Such policies should allow managers to replace a woman on maternity leave with a temporary resource. If implemented, it will diminish the professional penalty paid by working mothers making them more likely to be hired, retained, and prosper. 

The most important thing is a need to address mindsets created by social conditioning that lead to gender stereotypes. Stereotypes make it acceptable and even encourage that mothers take a break or shift to a less demanding role once they have children while accepting that men should continue to provide for their family. It’s important to realise that children are the equal responsibility of both the parents.

Lastly, organisations can play a positive role to break gender norms and stereotypes by encouraging conversations that help employees. Working mothers taking off around exam time should not be looked down upon. Fathers taking paternity leave and actively participating in childcare should be encouraged.

The road to motherhood need not be paved with penalties. We need mothers to come back to work to solve the issue of diversity sustainably. 

The Writer is Sonica Aron, Founder & Managing Partner, at Marching Sheep