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Finally, How to Be a Good Mom and Executive

Finally, How to Be a Good Mom and Executive

It happens all too often. I’ll be standing on stage and someone will ask this question: “How can you be a good mom and executive?”

The question is well-intentioned. Kind-hearted. And inherently sexist. It assumes the only way to be a good mom is to be the family’s primary caregiver. This assumption is a myth that research has long debunked. Yet it’s an assumption that persists until today which is why I’m addressing it here.

Our society continues to uphold that the role of women in society is to be good mothers and wives. Layer a career on top of these roles and now we expect women to be good mothers, wives, and employees. In essence, we expect women to “have it all.”

Should we?

No, and it’s more than an issue of fairness. It’s an issue that, by presenting executive moms with headwinds to economic opportunity, restricts our economy. (Not to mention an issue that spills over onto our future labor force.) This becomes clear once we dive into the data.

Women In the Workforce: No Longer a Cute Tagline

Women are in the workforce and they are here to stay. In fact, 71.5 percent of U.S. families with children under the age of 19 rely on mom’s earnings. In 40 percent of U.S. households with children under the age of 18, moms are the breadwinners. And compared to women without children, mothers are 15 percent more likely to say they want executive roles.

Although our families—and largely our societies—depend on the wages that moms bring home, we continue to hold moms (and society) back with antiquated myths and expectations.

How We Throttle Mom’s Potential

While overall, full-time, year-round working women make80 centsto a man’s dollar,mothers make only 71 centsto a father’s dollar. Looking deeper into this pay gap we find the following discrepancies:

  • Asian American or Pacific Islander mothers make 91 cents for every dollar paid to white fathers.
  • White mothers make 75 cents for every dollar paid to white fathers.
  • Black mothers make 52 cents for every dollar paid to white fathers.
  • Latina mothers make 50 cents for every dollar paid to white fathers.
  • Native American mothers make 47 cents for every dollar paid to white fathers.

The gender pay gap increases for women with children. The data further show that after the first child, a mother’s gross earnings fall by 30 percent. These lost earnings never fully recover. Over the long run, mom will earn an average of 20 percent less than her female counterpart without children. Mom’s childless female counterpart, however, will continue to increase her earnings at a rate similar to men.

One potential explanation for moms’ lost wages falls on people managers who “mommy-track” their workers—a futile exercise in risk prevention. That is, managers are hesitant to promote women with families or women about to start families because they perceive these women as less productive and not as committed to their careers. It further complicates the issue that the desire to start a family often coincides with the timing of an employee’s indispensable first promotion.

Managers overlook the fact that working mothers are the most productive employees in the workforce over the course of their careers.

What Happens When Men Have Children

An inverse trend occurs when men have children.

While mothers receive a child penalty as demonstrated in the wage gaps above, men receive a child premium. Their wages actually increase after having children. We also find that high-income men enjoy the largest pay bump while low-income women pay the biggest price after having children. Here’s how this trend plays out:

  • Men’s earnings increased by more than 6 percent when they had children. Women’s earnings decreased by 4 percent for each child they had.
  • Unmarried women without children earn 96 cents for every dollar a man earns. Married women with children earn 76 cents for every dollar a man earns.
  • Women in the top 10 percent of earners lost no income when they had children.
  • Women in the top 5 percent received bonuses similar to men when they had children.

Now let’s zoom in on the women at the very top.

Executive mothers

In 2011, 88 percent of the women on Forbes Most Powerful Women List were moms. Think about those women while pondering this: the average woman in the top 2 percent makes just 39 cents for every dollar a man makes.

Companies are overlooking both executive mothers and their families. In doing so, companies are leaving sums of money on the table.

Among the world’s largest 500 companies, only 10.9 percent of senior executives are women. Of those 500 companies, 21 percent have one female senior executive while a staggering 37 percent of companies on the list have all-male leadership teams.

Increasing the number of executive women and mothers in leadership spells good news for businesses, and it’s not difficult to find evidence that supports this conclusion. Consider the following two examples:

  1. A profitable firm with 30 percent female leadership can expect to add more than 1 percent point to its net margin as compared to a similar firm with zero female leadership. With an average net profit margin of 6.4 percent, a 1 percent point increase boost profits by 15 percent.
  2. Compared to teams with male leaders, Fortune 500 companies with women in top management benefit from 20 percent higher rate of “innovation intensity.”

It’s a strategic imperative for businesses (and society) to get past the misconceptions about working mothers. It’s time to get more women and mothers in executive roles.

Businesses Need More Mothers in Executive Roles

Increasing the number of mothers in executive roles requires a dual approach.

On one hand, we need businesses to play their part in providing the right resources to both mothers and fathers. Companies can start by auditing their current family leave policies.

  • How much time is allowed for leave?
  • At what rate of pay?
  • How are employees supported after returning to work?

Then they can implement strategies to create a more equitable environment for employees with and without children. These strategies would include:

  • Replacing maternity or paternity leave with caregiver leave.
  • Mapping out milestones and promotion opportunities once an employee does return to work.
  • Focusing on ensuring equitable opportunity over flexible work programs.

On the other hand, we need society to redefine what it means to be a good mom. Recently a politician asked me The Question: “How do I balance being a mother and an executive?” My answer to that question is almost always the same.

“There is more than one way to be a good mom. I may not make my children’s lunches or take them to school, but my children know that everything is negotiable and they know how to negotiate.”

Being a good mom and an executive isn’t about work-life balance or having it all. It’s about having the right business resources to realize economic potential. 


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