Being a Mother, Being a Leader – the Motherhood Penalty

The effects of being a mother on being a leader are becoming evident to the point of indisputable. For a year now, I’ve made two points. First, that for various reasons being a mother and being a leader are difficult to reconcile, especially mothers of young children. Second, that some of the differences between mothers and fathers are deeply rooted not only in sociology, but in biology. That is, mothers carry babies for nine months before they are born, and after babies are born it is mothers not fathers who have the innate capacity to ensure their survival.

Two recent studies further support the hypothesis that innate, biological, differences between the genders impact workplace trajectories, and that these differences negatively affect women, but not men. The first is that previously mentioned (see my post of 2/15) analysis of what happens to women in family-friendly Scandinavia. For all the public policies that encourage gender neutral child rearing in Sweden, women do more of it, men do less of it. While the reasons for this difference do not emerge from this latest study, it’s not much of a leap to suppose that breast-feeding alone accounts for some of it. It is only after the first child arrives that the gap in pay in Sweden becomes considerable, with women over the long term earning 20 percent less than men.

That is, women who are mothers. Women who are not mothers are not similarly disadvantaged. Not surprisingly, the motherhood penalty persists throughout women’s professional lives. Female executives in Sweden are half as likely to be chief executives as men. And they are one third less likely to be high earners, almost certainly because they work fewer hours, take longer breaks away from work altogether, and are more likely to move into family-friendly but lower paying jobs.

Another Swedish study had a different focus, but with similar results, results that suggested that biological differences between men and women disadvantage women not only professionally, but personally. Turns out that winning an election increases subsequent divorce rates for women, but not for men. Similarly, females who become chief executives divorce at a higher rate than their male counterparts.

The hypothesis that innate reasons play a part in explaining why women who top men are penalized for it, seems additionally to be supported earlier in life. When single women, including young single women, know that they are being watched by men, they tend to downplay their ambition for money and power. They know, or they think they know, intuitively if not intellectually, that they will be less attractive to men if they appear too ambitious.

No wonder the number of women in top leadership roles remains stubbornly low –  the world over. I am not arguing that the obstacles to gender equity are impossible to surmount. I am arguing that acknowledging the role of biology as well as sociology is necessary to taking on the challenge. No matter how inconvenient the truth.


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