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What is 'The Truth about the Motherhood Penalty'?

With the ‘March of the Mummies’ 2022 having just taken place this weekend, (On Saturday 29th October) across the U.K., I thought it a good time to post my review of Joeli Brearley’s book ‘The Truth about the Motherhood Penalty’.

When I read this book, I found two things difficult: the first, to put the book down and the second, to believe that I was reading about things that are taking place today, in our day and age to women everywhere and that more is not being done to improve things for women now, or for those coming after us.

One of the key reasons I founded bump & glide over 4 years ago was to improve the experience of the perinatal period for women in the workplace, as well as for the businesses these women work for. After having read this book and met the author, Joeli, at one of the PTS Live London events in person pre pandemic, I’m more determined than ever to make this time in women’s and businesses’ lives a more positive experience for all involved.

Below are some of the facts and comments I’d like to share from the book, to give you a bit of an overview. However, I really do recommend you read the whole book yourselves if you’re a woman, know a woman, have a mother, a daughter, niece, god-daughter, aunt, female friend…

Everyone should be aware of the issues raised in this book, because let’s face it, change is everyone’s responsibility.

We are ALL responsible for what happens next…

‘When we asked: ‘Can women have it all?’ we didn’t mean ‘Can women do it all.’ (p.11)

This is something I see regularly with friends, clients and myself on occasion too. Our mothers worked so hard to enable us to have more opportunities professionally but the system we are working in, and for, hasn’t evolved along with these opportunities. Far too often, women find themselves forever chasing the unachievable ‘having it all’ concept, when in reality, we can’t have it all 100% in every area of our lives!

‘the waste of so many talented women whose confidence had been crushed, their career terminated because their status had changed to ‘Mother’. (p.21)

When women add ‘mother’ to their status it denotes a change of identity, she has changed from who she was but isn’t quite sure of who she has become.. It’s like a collision of two identities struggling to combine themselves into the new version of themselves; something I recently spoke to a client about during a recent maternity mentoring session.

In wartime, ’When the survival of the country depended on ensuring the workplace worked for women, structures and systems were quickly established so that the country could benefit from their skills and labour.’ (p.36)

‘Mothers are told to ‘lean in’, as if it is somehow our fault that the labour market isn’t working for us; we clearly aren’t confident, ambitious or assertive enough. The thing is, we are ‘leaning in’ to a structure that was not built for mothers.’ (p.40)

‘This isn’t about motherhood being the problem. This is about a system that shuts mothers out.’ (p.60)

‘The Motherhood Penalty is a term coined by sociologists. It sums up the disadvantages women encounter in terms of earnings and career progression when they have children.’ (p.60)

‘It’s the workplace that needs to change, not women.’ (p.71)

‘We are told time and time again that companies are working hard to recruit, retain and promote women in their workplaces.’ (p.73)

Yes! We do hear this a lot and yet what exactly is being done to attract, recruit and retain these women? With Deloitte’s research showing that 75% of the global workforce will be the millennial generation by 2025, companies need to seriously look at what their packages are offering to this generation of candidates who will no longer be satisfied with only a salary, healthcare and pension. They want more. They will need more. They will demand more. Companies need to think outside the box, lead the way in terms of new benefits, new policies with a huge focus on mental health and wellbeing.

‘The government often states that the UK maternity policy is ‘one of the most generous in the world’, which it is in terms of time but definitely isn’t in terms of money and you need both for maternity leave to be viable.’ (p.97)

* Tom Powell, ‘UK “one of Europe’s worst countries for maternity leave”, Evening Standard, 24 March 2017.

‘What some women might experience isn’t a lack of interest in their career but a rearrangement of values, a desire to work flexibly, perhaps part-time, to occasionally hang out with their children rather than ‘lean in’ to work 24/7. That’s not a ‘giving up’ mentality or a not-caring-about-your-career mentality, it’s a wanting-to-be-all-in-with-every-aspect-of-your-life-without-burnout mentality.’ (p.101)

Do we inherently believe that if a woman loses her job then it’s okay because her husband will look after her, even though this isn’t the reality for many mothers? When will we realise that mothers are dedicated, committed and highly skilled workers and that their employment is just as valuable as anyone else’s? All we are asking for is respect and a system that works for us.’ (p.103)

‘The majority of employers don’t necessarily mean to discriminate; they just let their unconscious bias run wild or they panic, and, rather than asking the pregnant employee want she wants or needs, they avoid her and quite quickly the communication between employee and employer deteriorates. (p.147)

Communication. Communication. Communication. Focus on effective communication during pregnancy, during leave and during the return to work and there won’t be such a huge negative impact to both parties afterwards.

‘Research by Save the Children in 2018 found that there are 870,000 stay-at-home Mums in England who wanted to work but couldn’t because of childcare cost and availability. (p.154)

* ‘870,000 mums in England can’t get the childcare they need’, Save the Children, accessed 14 August 2020.

Caring for children is a full-time job; it leaves limited time for anything else.’ (p.155)

‘Childcare is an investment, not a cost.’ (p.158)

While women’s participation in paid work has increased considerably, men’s share of the unpaid labour has largely remained stagnant since the 1980’s.’ (p.169)

* ‘Evrim Altintas, Oriel Sullivan, ‘Fifty Years of Change Updated: Cross-National Gender Convergence in Housework’, Demographic Research, Vol.35, 16 (2016): pp.455-70.

‘Cognitive labour’ is a term coined by Harvard Sociologist Allison Daminger to summarise the ‘labour of the mind’ that tends to be done predominantly by women. This cognitive or ‘mental’ labour is invisible.’ (p.173)

‘The big challenge is that many employers come from a generation where paternity leave and being an active father just wasn’t a thing. (…) Families are changing the way they manage their time and responsibilities, but companies are struggling to move away from the alpha-male role model.’ (p.203)

In 2017, only 25% of mothers with children aged 3-4 were working full-time compared with 83% of men with children of the same age.’ (p.217)

* ‘Families and the Labour Market, England: 2017’, Office for National Statistics, 26 September 2017.

‘There has never been a more urgent time for us to create a society and a labour market that works for mothers.’ (p277)

Employers also benefit from looking after pregnant women and new mums at work. The cost to UK businesses per year of kicking women out of their jobs is £278.8 million, based on recruitment and training costs as well as lost productivity. (p.282)

*Research report 105: ‘Estimating the Financial Cost of Maternity related Discrimination and Disadvantage’, Equality and Human Rights Commission, October 2015

'Childcare is the invisible gender peace agreement. Its the infrastructure that underpins all working families and our economy, but it can only be truly effective if it is accessible, flexible, good quality and affordable'. (p.288)

‘ worked out that a stay-at-home parent’s pay should be £124,455 based on a salary that is similar to a handful of jobs that stay-at-home parents participate in on a daily basis and their average working week being 96 hours.’ (p.294)

* ‘Moms: We all know you’re worth it. But how much is “it” really worth?,, accessed 15 August 2020.

As quoted in one of the last paragraphs of the book:

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” (Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to the United States congress).

Equality, or lack of, is everyone’s issue. Let’s all be a part of the change for the generations to come.

Our children deserve better.

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