Mothers make great leaders, but are we supporting them to do so?
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > Mothers make great leaders, but are we supporting them to do so?

Mothers make great leaders, but are we supporting them to do so?

by Jason Roberts

January 30, 2019

Working women face a negative effect on their careers as they grow their families, while being seen as bringing skills to the workplace that can actually make them the best leaders, the US-based Bright Horizons’ fifth-annual Modern Family Index (MFI) has found.


Bright Horizons operates more than 1,000 childcare centers, and cares for approximately 116,000 children annually in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and India. Bright Horizons’ MFI is an online survey conducted by Kelton Global from 29 October until 8 November 2018. The 2018 sample consisted of 2,143 working Americans over the age of 18 (994 parents, 1,149 non-parents).


Why is the MFI relevant to Australia?


The report is interesting to read when considering the Australian context, as many of the challenges of working mothers are the same. So much so that the Australian Government recently developed Australia’s first Women’s Economic Security (WES) package, which will  invest in excess of $100 million over four years to focus attention on building financial security for women, increasing workforce participation, and better earning potential.


On the release of the package, Federal Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer said “With more women in the workforce than ever before, 2018 has seen female workforce participation reach record highs…Despite this progress, some problems still persist. Women are likely to earn less than men; they are likely to work part time at over twice the rate of men; and, at retirement age there is a 42 per cent gap in their superannuation balances.”


The US report: change is needed for working mums to meet their potential


According to the MFI, 72 per cent of both working American mums and dads agree that women are penalised in their careers for starting families, while men are not. Despite being viewed by their peers as possessing the qualities that make for strong leaders, working mums find they come up against roadblocks at work, with 78 per cent believing that they must prove themselves more than others to gain a leadership position at work. And with leadership roles often dominated by men, almost two in five (37 per cent) working mums worry that they do not fit the leadership mold.


The report urges existing leadership to “break through the traditional gender norms and prejudiced notions of working mums in leadership to create a more supportive environment that allow these women to realise their career potential”.


“Lead like a mum”


Bright Horizons said that the 2018 report offers concrete data showing that working mums are the best equipped to bring 21st century leadership skills to the workplace. The company said that, according to the survey, those who “lead like a mum” may be the missing ingredient businesses need to realise their full potential.


“Working Americans almost unanimously agree (91 per cent) that working mums bring unique skills to leadership roles, and 89 per cent feel they bring out the best in employees,” Bright Horizons said.


The report also showed that:


  • The vast majority (85 per cent) of those surveyed agree that being a mother helps women prepare for the challenges they will face as business leaders, and 84 per cent believe having mothers in leadership roles will make a business more successful.
  • 65 per cent of those surveyed describe working mums as better listeners than other employees.
  • They also describe mothers as calmer in crisis (51 per cent), more diplomatic (47 per cent), and better team players (44 per cent) than as compared with working fathers or employees without children.
  • Working mothers were rated better at multitasking than others in the workforce (63 per cent vs 37 per cent) and better at time management (56 per cent vs 44 per cent).


Workplace culture and perceptions impacting mothers’ confidence


However, despite the belief that mothers possess the skills needed to succeed in leadership, the 2019 MFI shows that working mothers are being held back in the workplace. According to the survey:


  • 69 per cent of respondents say working mothers are more likely to be passed up for a new job than other employees.
  • 60 per cent of respondents admit that career opportunities are given to less qualified employees instead of mothers who are more skilled.
  • 41 per cent of working Americans view mums in the workplace as less devoted to their work, and 38 per cent judge them for needing a more flexible work schedule.


“The survey reveals little progress, and in some cases a worsening of the workplace culture in the last five years,” Bright Horizons said. “Workplaces are still dominated by a culture that continues to favor men as business leaders despite women being ambitious and fit to lead.”


The company also said that the MFI data uncovers that negative perceptions from senior leaders and colleagues are not only holding mums back in the workplace, but are also impacting women’s confidence:


  • Nearly twice as many working mothers are nervous to tell their boss they are pregnant compared to five years ago (21 per cent vs 12 per cent), and over three in five (65 per cent) women without children worry what having a child will mean for their career.
  • Americans believe working fathers are more dedicated to their careers than working moms (75 per cent vs 59 per cent).
  • They also believe dads who work are better able to manage their responsibilities without being stretched too thin (77 per cent) than mothers who work (66 per cent).
  • One in four mothers admit they are concerned by colleagues’ perceptions, worried that they won’t be viewed as leaders (19 per cent) or respected by others (13 per cent).


Mums want same career growth opportunities as others


Bright Horizons said that the 2018 MFI demonstrates the current portrait of senior leadership is “far from equal”.


Nearly nine in ten (87 per cent) of employed Americans feel that companies can do more to help foster mums in leadership positions. According to the findings, nearly two in five working moms (39 per cent) say they will stay with a company if they get assurances that they will have the same growth opportunities as those without children. Almost one in three (32 per cent) will also stay if they are guaranteed that no responsibilities will be taken from them.


“We need to support and embrace motherhood in the workplace and learn from our leaders who are also parents,” said Bright Horizons Chief Human Resources Officer Maribeth Bearfield. “In order to move forward, change attitudes, and make progress, organisations should focus on supporting young female professionals and holding all employees accountable to make sure there is a real path to the top for women as they grow their families.”


To download the full 2018 Bright Horizons Modern Family Index report, click here.

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