Women who take “time off” to raise their children are often shortchanged when they try to re-enter the workforce. They find themselves starting from a lower place—or bypassed altogether by employers who prefer younger, more malleable candidates, sometimes straight from university.
The stereotype of mother does not seem to jive well with the workforce, even if the workforce wouldn’t even exist without mothers. Oddly, some employers—female hiring managers included—harbor an utterly nonsensical belief: that more experienced mothers are less hard-working or competent than less experienced single women.
How can a woman who has a university degree or two, worked for ten or fifteen years, before choosing to take care of her child be less competent than a young woman who just came out of college and has less work experience? It’s even more mindboggling when you compare the experienced worker-turned-mother with the younger version of herself. Why should the same woman have changed for the worse?
From the mother’s perspective, she has evolved, not gone backwards. If anything, after parenting a child, she may have learned quite a few skills that could make her a better worker and manager: multi-tasking; patience; the art of persuasion; acceptance of individual differences; empathy with struggling employees. We should also state the obvious: a woman’s IQ does not decrease with motherhood. If anything, mothers are often the ones having to resolve some of life’s most intractable—and understudied—problems.
Personally, the hardest problem I have had to solve was not on the job, but as a mother, on behalf of my child. It is easy to solve problems for which you have been properly trained—even the high-stakes, high-stress dilemmas my job entailed. But as mothers, we’re often called on to resolve problems for which we have no expertise, no mentoring, and zero confidence. I am proud to say that I eventually solved a problem for my child that ten physicians were incapable of solving—even though medicine is not my field at all.
But would I use this fine example of problem-solving in a job interview? If I did, the hiring manager would probably downplay the scope of the problem, instead of respecting me for it. They may even think that I used this example because I didn’t need to resolve any job-related problems recently—also not true. Mothers often take on other, more flexible, less lucrative, but not necessarily easier jobs whilst they are caring for their children.
Basically, women who put their careers on hold for childcare deal with a slew of Medieval stereotypes: not only the ones besieging all women, but also more nefarious ones that are specific to mothers.
Managers don’t realize that it takes much self-confidence and magnanimity to derail one’s career for the benefit of one’s offspring. Because derailing is really a more accurate depiction than taking time off, as the latter erroneously suggests you can easily get back on track when you want to. These derailed careers were often hard-earned through advanced degrees and high-powered jobs. Women have many reasons for making this choice, but there is one reason that most of them share: they believe that they can come back to their old careers when they are done with the temporary job of rearing kids. Sadly, many women don’t realize that this assumption is mostly wrong.
The reality is that women cannot always come back to their old careers. They are not always welcome. They are not always taken seriously. Or if they are allowed to come back into the fold, they must accept sub-ideal terms, like starting from lower positions; proving themselves all over again; receiving lower pay; having less responsibility, and sometimes even accepting the humbling prospect of having as their boss the very same man who once was their own employee (because he wasn’t the one taking time off to raise his child).
How does this happen? Look no further than the CV, the first base of bias against mothers. How do women explain that they took five to fifteen years away from their careers to raise one or sometimes three kids? Women who admit this on their resume are often not even called in for an interview. When women don’t specify their years of childcare, they are left with gaping “holes” in their resumes. Employers disapprove of these lapses as though they indicate ten years spent drinking cocktails at Club Med—instead of the minefield that is childrearing.
Taking a long hiatus may mean that a woman needs to update herself with new developments in her field, for sure. But it certainly doesn’t mean she has forgotten everything that she learned prior to the birth of her child. In most nonscientific, nontechnical fields, there aren’t that many new developments, anyway. This is where the stereotypes start to become toxic. Women in their forties and fifties are not yet at the age where one has to worry about dementia or Alzheimer’s. Their memory is the same, and their knowledge hasn’t evaporated. And just for the record again, women do not lose IQ points over the course of motherhood, just as fathers don’t become stupid in the process of parenting their kids. If anything, both fathers and mothers generally come into some wisdom, much-needed humility, and even insight into the human condition.
By penalizing women for choosing to raise their own children, we are in effect issuing a sometimes life-long penalty to half of the workforce for taking on the grunt work that is raising the next generation of workers.
Losing the career one worked so hard for is not just a personal loss to women—and their self-confidence and their earning potential. It is indirectly a penalty on their girls, who implicitly learn that hard work will lead to rewards and respect—unless you decide to care for your own children. The message kids are given is that work and family are mutually exclusive if you are a girl—but not if you are a boy. In the US, this mother penalty also affects women’s earning potential when they need it the most: to pay for their now teenagers’ looming college educations, which can be upwards of 250 thousand dollars for the standard college degree. For half the couples who divorce, a woman’s inability to become the breadwinner she once was deals an even bigger blow to the wellbeing and higher education prospects of her children.
It is not only mothers, their partners, and their children who pay this fine on motherhood. As a society, we are underutilizing the intellectual potential of half our workers. We are effectively “tossing” half the higher education degrees granted, long before their holders reach the age of retirement, including precious MDs, PhDs, JDs and MBAs. We are also not reaping the full benefits of older women in senior positions, who are more able to represent the interests of younger women entering the workforce than the more common male senior management. In essence, by squeezing mothers out of their rightfully attained positions pre-motherhood, we keep replicating a workplace that is unequal and inhospitable to women. Women come into the workforce with traits that are as permanent as skin color. Many women will get pregnant. They will take maternity leave to nurse their babies and bond with them. Some will want to be there longer than three months. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we know that it is beneficial for children to be raised by their parents as opposed to their nannies.
We will have to take a more philosophical approach as a society—and create more laws and guidelines to protect mothers. For instance, breast-feeding is not just good for someone’s baby. The longer babies are breastfed, the healthier they are as children and adults, and the less likely they will need expensive medical care and other services. Children benefit psychologically from the presence of their parents at home after school. Allowing mothers to come back to similar positions where they left off means that as a society we are utilizing the full potential of women’s intellect, experience, education and training.
It is a big misnomer to say that women “take time off” to raise their children. It is more like taking a five to ten-year sabbatical from the paid job you know well in order to perform a more grueling unpaid job you know nothing about. The only reason rational women would do such an irrational thing is that they believe that they either should take care of their kids themselves—or have no choice but to do so. Part of this choice is also one we make as a society in taxing two parents’ salaries in toto, at a higher tax bracket. If we instead taxed each parent’s salary separately, at a lower tax bracket, then perhaps working mothers wouldn’t feel like half their pay would go to taxes—and the other half to childcare. We can choose—as do some European countries—to subsidize early childcare. In the US, childcare and preschools are often as expensive as private schools, and only a tiny fraction of their cost is tax deductible. So unless women have a top tier salary, it makes no financial sense for them to work outside the home, and distribute most of their paycheck to the preschool or the au pair.
Mothers would have more options if their maternity leave were longer and their professional careers were not all-or-nothing. Sweden, for instance, grants one-year maternity and has more flexible shifts for physicians that accommodate children’s shorter school days.
As many parents know, parenting is often more work than their actual professions. Someone has to raise the children. If parents don’t do it, they will have to rely on someone else to step in, paid or unpaid. The nuclearization of the family means there are fewer and fewer grandparents, aunts, and other relatives who are willing or able to care for infants alongside working parents. Today, members of an extended family are often forced to scatter all over the country or world for educational and job opportunities. Women are thus left with no option but paid childcare, which in the West is not only expensive but of spotty quality and quite unregulated. Paid childcare is also high-turnover, which is psychologically stressful for infants who like to attach to their caregivers.
Like pregnancy, motherhood should be a protected category. Put differently, a worker should not be discriminated against on the basis of motherhood status. The workforce needs to accept women with all the possible concomitants of the XX chromosomes, from PMS to pregnancy; from breastfeeding to menopause. We can certainly handle a little more estrogen and progesterone in a workplace often colored by too much testosterone.
We must not forget that it is these same mothers who raised our workforce. All workers had to be born, nursed, potty-trained, and taught some manners. Those good grades you like to see on resumes? Someone had to coax that child into taking their school work seriously—and teach them a lifelong work ethic.
So next time you see a gaping hole in a woman’s resume, have some respect. This woman has been working in the trenches, busy raising the workforce of tomorrow. She may not fit into her suit as well as she did. And she may need to learn some new tricks—but they are nothing compared to what she already knows. Give her a chance today, while she still has another twenty years of hard work to give—and wisdom to share.