The hidden penalties of being a mother in the workforce


Erin O’Dwyer

Annette Noble with her children Darcy, 11, Millie, 8, and Finn, 4.

Annette Noble with her children Darcy, 11, Millie, 8, and Finn, 4. Photo: Nick Cubbin

Annette Noble's first child was four months old when she boarded an international flight for a week-long business trip. "I got on the plane and breathed a sigh of relief. I thought, 'No one can contact me for at least 24 hours,' " she says.

No one could question Noble's dedication to her marketing job. She had just been promoted and with her husband Chris working on a digital start-up, she was the primary breadwinner. But by the time her second child was born, the situation had changed. Chris's business had taken off and he was pulling long days, late nights and regular weeks overseas. Two parents working at full tilt was not an option. 

Someone's career had to give. Annette had climbed to the upper rungs of the travel industry through talent and sheer determination. Finally she was at the level where she could enjoy the satisfaction of sitting at the decision-making table. The responsibility of children brought that crashing down.

Kylie Bryden-Smith with her children Juliette, 10, Luke, 7, and Daniel, 12.

Kylie Bryden-Smith with her children Juliette, 10, Luke, 7, and Daniel, 12. Photo: Nick Cubbin

"My career took the hit," Annette, now 40, says. "Before I had children, I had lots of different options, and international options, but your priorities change and you have to make compromises. That is just a fact."


In fact, it's called the Motherhood Penalty. And it will be devastatingly familiar to any woman with children. 

To be a mother in the workforce is to be at a serious disadvantage. Global research shows that mothers earn less money, are less likely to be interviewed and hired, are less likely to be promoted, are more likely to work part-time or in jobs that are beneath their education and experience, and are generally considered less capable and committed workers.

Statistics released in 2014 paint a bleak picture. According to Diversity Council Australia, mothers experience a 17 per cent loss in wages over a lifetime. They take an average 4 per cent pay cut after the birth of their first child and a 9 per cent cut for each subsequent child. 

The largest pay gap exists between female workers and working mothers. Women now earn 18 per cent less than their male counterparts – a shameful gap and the highest in 30 years. But OECD statistics from 2014 also show working mothers earn 22 per cent less than female workers without children during their prime working years – the result of time off, part-time work, sideways secondments down the so-called "mummy track", and missed opportunities for promotion.

If, as women and mothers, we are being urged to "lean in" – a term made famous by Facebook's superhuman chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg – exactly how are we to do it?

Changes in the corporate landscape have had little impact. Experts say there is an insidious bias against working mothers. "I hear lots of stories of people going on maternity leave and coming back to different roles that are less senior or with less scope," says psychologist Frances Feenstra, from the Melbourne consultancy People Measures, who has championed women in the workplace.

Professor Marian Baird, from the University of Sydney Business School, points to a deep-seated uneasiness about mothers in the workforce. "We have a long tradition through the industrial relations system in Australia of protecting the male-breadwinner model," she says. "That's breaking down with the need for both parents to work, but we still haven't fully come to terms with the fact that mothers are working, and how we should to respond to that."

Then there are social norms. Both women and men still expect women to take on the lion's share of care-giving when children are small, and to take on family-friendly work through the school years. Having fewer women in senior management reinforces the stereotype. Even when couples intend to share parenting, reality bites. Recovering from birth and breastfeeding keeps many women at home longer. There's even less incentive to rush back to work if the male partner earns more money. 

Feenstra believes it's an issue for the dinner table as well as the boardroom. "We're still not having the conversation at home. We talk about it as a corporate problem but it is a society norm problem. Couples do not have the conversation that says, 'If we are going to have children, who is going to look after them?' The assumption is still that it will be the woman."

Kylie Bryden-Smith landed her dream job in her mid-20s as marketing director of the Sydney Opera House. In 2000, she helped guide the institution from iconic building to vibrant performing arts centre, at a time when the eyes of the world were upon it thanks to the Olympic Games. "I thought my career was set up," she says.

She started her family when she was in her early 30s. She established her own PR consultancy but with three children under five and a husband who worked long hours in the financial markets, someone was needed on the home front. It was her career and her income that suffered.

Now 43, she has had more than a decade out of paid work. While she has kept her hand in volunteering on not-for-profit boards, it was not until recently, when her youngest child turned six, that she had the confidence to take on paid work again, consulting to a state government department. She felt she needed "permission" to put her career on the agenda again.

"So many women are highly educated but the reality is, once you get to childbearing age you are struck with this challenge, trying to balance paid work and motherhood," she says. "The stress it causes many women is huge. I paid the price with my income."

Research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2013 reveals that almost one in two working mothers has returned to full-time work after their youngest child starts high school. But by then, many find their career in tatters. Their peers have zoomed ahead in pay and seniority and they find themselves competing against younger, less sleep-deprived versions of themselves. 

US commentator Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in her 2012 essay Why Women Still Can't Have It All, that the "on ramps" to career progression are often closed to women in their 40s. She counsels younger women to establish their careers first and have their babies second. "But the truth is, neither sequence is optimal and both involve trade-offs that men do not have to make," she writes.

Part-time work for women – a very Australian phenomenon – is a double-edged sword. In the US, couples tend to both work full-time, leaving the care to low-paid nannies. In the Netherlands, there is a trend towards both partners working part-time. 

War stories from the Australian workplace – where women take primary responsibility for the work/family juggle – are rife. They pay the penalty at home, at work, with their mental and physical health, and cumulatively for the rest of their lives. 

Most part-time working mothers I spoke to were too nervous to give their names. It's called the "lucky mother" syndrome, says Marian Baird. "They're often quite grateful for the flexible policies. But 10 years down the track when they put their heads up and realise they've lost traction in the workforce, that leads to burnout and resentment. We need to consider a life-cycle approach."

A senior manager at Origin Energy, with two young children says she has slipped behind her male peers even though she took less than 12 months' leave and returned to work four days a week. "Motherhood is not a stamp that you're stuck with," she says. "The penalty comes when you choose not to go foot to foot with the hours and the travel and the commitment."

Annette Noble went on to have a third child and has recently scaled back further. She quit a part-time job with a not-for-profit arts company to again work flexibly from home. "It's a decision based on what I can manage," she says. "The house is running more smoothly, I'm able to cook meals of an evening and I'm not dropping off three loads of washing at the laundromat," she says. 

Noble has come to terms with emotional penalty of motherhood – the loss of her career. "I've accepted that I'm more than the sum total of what I do for a living." But the financial penalty lingers. "I know my superannuation is low, and that's an issue, but I'm not sure how to address it."

Low superannuation haunts working mothers. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that women, on average, have just over half as much superannuation as men – an average of $68,000 compared with $112,000. Working mothers accumulate a "baby super debt" of as much as $50,000 over the course of their working life, according to the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia.

Older women, meanwhile, are at a growing risk of becoming homeless. It's a result of poverty, unaffordable housing, divorce, low retirement savings, and years spent out of the workforce raising children.

"It makes logical sense that if women are spending time out of the paid workforce caring for children or other family members, that penalty builds up over a lifetime to the point where you get to older age and you're on a single pension and it equals poverty," says Felicity Reynolds, from the Mercy Foundation in Sydney.

Even a happy marriage is not a safe retirement plan. And many women find motherhood docking them long after the children have left home. In an essay on the topic, mother of four Dianne Blacklock, 54, tallies the cost of raising children. She spent 13 years out of the workforce, six in part-time work, and has worked freelance or on a contract ever since. When her marriage ended, she found herself unable to buy a house or get a loan.

"Society gets a free ride on the backs of mothers," she writes in the anthology Mothers & Others. "And then, when it's all over, our contribution and sacrifice is largely ignored or forgotten. We're like the Vietnam vets of the mummy wars."

Ironically, fatherhood is a boon for men. A 2010 Macquarie University study found that male managers earned an extra $2000 to $5000 a year for each child, while women with similar experience lost $2000 to $7000 a year per birth. Fathers are considered more reliable and committed. Blind resumé studies repeatedly show that men who are fathers are more likely to be interviewed, hired and offered a higher salary than women who are mothers.

But the story is not so simple. Men who want time out to co-parent are met with raised eyebrows. "The situation traps men as much as it traps women," says Feenstra. "Many more women in senior management roles would normalise the look of the workforce, which would then make it easier to have the conversation at home."

In 2010, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick established Male Champions of Change. She brought together 25 male business leaders – including the CEOs of Qantas, Telstra, ANZ and KPMG – to drive gender equality at the coalface.

The flow-ons have been impressive. Telstra and ANZ have announced strategies to improve workplace flexibility, Vodafone has introduced a "four days a week for five days of pay", and PwC chief executive Luke Sayers has committed to boosting the ranks of female partners. "Flexibility shouldn't just be a conversation we have with working mums," Sayers has said. "It can and should play a role in the conversation every manager has with every employee."

Seasoned observers welcome the turning tide. But cautiously. Kate O'Reilly, a former Deloitte director, whose firm Optimiss consults to big business on gender equality, says big-ticket family-friendly policies are no silver bullet. Many senior women who return from maternity leave find themselves sidelined from key projects or relieved of important clients. 

"Companies assume that when a woman comes back to work, her commitment is to her family," O'Reilly says. "But women say, 'If I am going to come to work and leave my son at home then I want to do something meaningful and that will advance my career.' It's a really easy fix. You have to have communications both ways."

For now, women are the ones who take extended maternity leave, who downgrade their jobs to part-time, who take the day off work when the children are sick, who leave early to attend the swimming carnival and who turn down opportunities to travel, all so the household can keep running. The flexibility this demands means their careers become perilously unstable, while their partners' careers either flourish or barely skip a beat. 

"No one has the perfect solution," says Marian Baird. "But if men take the same sort of family leave as women, we will see a change. We have to make men as 'unreliable' as women." 

No one needs to ask whether children are worth it, because the answer is a resounding yes. But so many talented, energetic women have not been able to realise their full career or earning potential. 

Annette Noble has shelved thoughts of coming back into the full-time workforce. But she has a new focus – she's running marathons. Last year, she finished the New York marathon. "Running gives you a great goal and there's no room for slacking off" she says. "I've got other things I'm far more passionate about now and I don't necessarily have to monetise that."

This story first appeared on Sunday Life