Being a Mother, Being a Leader

The fertility rate is down. But a greater percentage of American women are mothers now than a decade ago. Currently 86 percent of U.S. women ages 40 to 44 have at least one child!*

The increase is especially striking among two groups: first, women who never married; second, women with advanced degrees. It appears that what previously were considered barriers to becoming a mother, are now perceived differently. In fact, the biggest increase in motherhood in the last twenty years is among women with a higher education.  Among women with doctorates or professional degrees, some 80 percent now have a child by age 44, a significant jump from two decades earlier.

At the same time, so far at least, the number of women in leadership roles remains strikingly low. This applies across the board – to women in business, in politics, and in the non profit sector. Which again raises the question of why. Why, given the reduction now in gender bias, given the various supports now available to women, and given the emphasis now on achieving diversity, do leadership roles remain so elusive to women?

Could it be that there’s a connection between the two? That precisely because more women now are mothers, many of them single mothers, for them the exercise of leadership is not a priority? Or, at least, not a priority when their children are young? Not a priority precisely during those years when ascending the leadership ladder is most likely?

We know full well that the U.S. lags in family friendly public policies. We also know full well that U. S. companies remain stingy when it comes to parental leave. At the same time, we similarly know that Sweden, as much as any place on the planet, strives consciously and deliberately for gender equity. Yet even in Sweden, the number of women in leadership roles is meager. Not nearly as meager as in the U. S., but, still, meager. In 2014, only one in ten CEO positions in the largest 1,050 Swedish companies were held by women.

Which returns us to a point I made previously: that being a mother, especially of children and adolescents, and being a leader, is not generally a match made in heaven. The fact is that more educated women who now leave work are in their late 30s and early 40s – precisely because they are having babies later in life. This makes the match between motherhood and leadership even more fraught.




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