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The Provocateur: Paying the Motherhood Penalty


In the UK, 77% of working mothers aren’t given an equal chance to grow their careers and feel forced to leave the workplace each year [1]. From feeling burnt out to unaffordable childcare, disadvantages in pay, perceived competence, normative discrimination, lack of flexibility, the list goes on… This is the Motherhood Penalty. So, how do we stop motherhood becoming the kiss of death for a promising career?

As a first-time mum, the thought of returning to work was filled with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I felt the pressure to quickly bounce back and return stronger than ever to prove my value after being away for almost a year. No small task with a six-month-old baby at home.

It’s important that we have open conversations, not only to give new working parents support and reassurance, but to show ways good employers get it right. At a recent event hosted by Wavemaker Family and Women at Wavemaker [2], six inspiring female leaders [3] unpacked what employers can do to support working mothers.

Understand and normalise the role of working parents.

Traditionally in the workplace, a conversation around starting a family has been difficult to have openly, with many women stating that they have no choice but to be secretive, to protect their career. There has long been a perception that working mothers are less capable than their male or non-parent colleagues. This often, along with other factors, leads working mothers to feel they should overcompensate for other people’s negative perceptions.

Understanding and normalising the role of working parents is vital for them to thrive in the workplace. This comes from senior leadership (both male and female) modelling good behaviour. Taking parental leave and setting a precedent for a healthy work/life balance should include feeling safe to be transparent about leaving work early to collect a child or attend a parent’s evening or school play, and be met with support rather than criticism or judgement.

Flexibility is key.

When we talk about flexible working, there’s often misconceptions about what it actually means. It’s more than part-time work and finishing early, there’s a broader spectrum of flexibility. We must create a culture where trust is key.

Focusing on the deliverables of the job, and what outputs are needed to make the business successful, can help clarify expectations for everyone. It’s imperative to have a top-down approach, where every manager is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Managing guilt and avoiding burn out.

The transition from mother to working parent is huge. Prior to having a baby, for many women their career was of paramount importance. For most coming back to work the sentiment is the same, but with a young child at home it takes extra energy, physically, emotionally and mentally.

A re-contracting of this workload between working mums (or dads) and those who support them, can lighten the load. Michelle Kennedy, Founder and CEO of Peanut shared a helpful analogy: “some [of the ball’s parents juggle] are glass and some of them are plastic, it’s ok to drop the plastic ones. They’re the ones we impose on ourselves as being important, but you can never drop the glass ones”.

It’s an ongoing challenge the world over. Businesses, leaders and parents alike must continue to find and implement ways to help new parents thrive at work without any kind of penalty due.


[1] Pregnancy and Maternity – related discrimination and Disadvantage: Experiences of Mothers. Adams, L., Winterbotham, M., Oldfield, K., Mcleish, J., Large, A., Stuart, A., Murphy, L. and Rossiter, H. (n.d.). Available at:

[2] With thanks to the Motherhood Penalty event organisers Alice Hennessy, Global Partnership Lead, Founder and co-lead of the Family Community, Wavemaker and Nathalie Moruzzi, Global Platform Content Director and co-lead Wavemaker Family.

[3] The panel was hosted by Nathalie Moruzzi, Global Platform Content Director, and co-lead Wavemaker Family. Panellists included Katy Fridman, Founder of Flexible Working People, Michelle Kennedy, Founder and CEO of Peanut, Sarah Cumming, VP Enterprise Strategy & Digital Transformation at Danone UK & Ireland, Takako Elliot, Co-founder of &Beyond, and Katie Lee, COO, Wavemaker UK.

Rosemary Fajobi
Global Marketing Manager

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