New research reveals that moms battle bias when resuming careers

Businesses looking to resolve gender imbalance in the workplace could be losing up to 60%[i] of their female talent due to hiring managers’ negative perceptions of the commitment and competence of women who take a career break to be stay-at-home mothers in their children’s formative years.

Effectively “punished for having children”, these working mothers are often considered only for lower-level, more mundane and lower-paid roles than they previously held.

Lunga Tukani, University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) MBA alumnus and contributor to the USB 2021 Women’s report, in partnership with the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), says this very “punishment” caused some women to switch employers or careers, or even give up on working entirely.

His research revealed that managers responsible for hiring decisions perceived mothers returning to the workforce after a few years of raising children would be less committed, not give their full time and attention, and have lost their skills – potentially clouding their decision-making in the recruitment process.

“These biases and negative perceptions of hiring managers are not only the greatest obstacle to stay-at-home mothers picking up their former careers, but also place organisations at risk of losing ground on their gender equity goals and potentially falling foul of the Employment Equity Act in which family responsibility is a ground for unfair discrimination,” Tukani comments.

Women are already under-represented in the South African workplace – they make up 51% of the population but accounted for only 44% of total employment in the first quarter of 2021, and especially in senior positions where less than a third of management jobs are held by women.[ii]

“Facing barriers to re-entering the labour market after raising a child puts women at further disadvantage and hinders efforts to achieve workplace equality. Support for women in the form of laws and policies is ineffective in countering the cultural and social norms that show up in prejudice and perceptions that mothers are less committed and effective employees.”

“Professional, qualified women who want to make a contribution in the workplace are thus effectively being punished for having children,” Tukani said.

The tension between motherhood and a career threatens many women’s well-being and sense of identity, while discrimination hampers their efforts to resume their careers – with a study[iii] in the USA showing that only 73% of highly qualified women who wanted to return to work were able to do so, and only 40% managed to secure full-time work or a role comparable to before having children.

Tukani said the potential loss of female talent should be of great concern to employers, especially given that women are in general better educated than men. In South Africa, the majority of higher education graduates are women, consistently outnumbering men by 2:1 at undergraduate level and making up approximately half of Masters’ and Doctoral graduates.[iv]

“Although women surpass men in educational attainment, this advantage is lost due to perceptions that being an ‘ideal worker’ and a mother are incompatible. It is concerning that the gender that has invested the most in education is perceived unworthy of higher positions, and that their contribution to organisations is underestimated simply because they have taken a career break to care for a child,” Tukani said.

Seeking to understand the impact of possible bias by hiring managers on stay-at-home mothers’ efforts to return to work, Tukani did an exploratory study involving a group of South African line managers responsible for hiring decisions in their teams or departments. The respondents were equally balanced between female and male managers.

“The findings of this study suggest that managers need to perform honest introspection on biases that cloud their decision-making in the hiring process, and they need to commit to creating a workplace environment and culture that ensures an equitable and representative workforce,” Tukani concluded.

Asked what comes to mind when considering the CV of a stay-at-home mother applying for a position, the managers’ main impressions were that the woman would be less competent and less committed, that the weight of childcare duties would negatively impact their performance, and that they would not be willing or able to put in extra time.

Confirming the notion that an ideal employee is “married to their job and willing to work long hours”, Tukani said that one participant stated that they would question whether “we will get full value for what we pay”.

Others were concerned that mothers might require more time-off than other employees, for example having to leave work in the middle of the day to deal with a child-related emergency.

“The concern is that, if these perceptions govern the employer’s decisions when considering applications, a stay-at-home mother, as competent as she may be, and despite the fact that she has made childcare arrangements, including for unforeseen events and emergencies, may not be considered for the post.”

“These perceptions need to change and stay-at-home mothers should at least be given the opportunity of an interview, where they can indicate what contingency plans they have in place,” Tukani said.

While a positive aspect was that the managers had favourable perceptions of the skills and attributes of stay-at-home mothers – especially in contributing to team-building and cohesion because they were seen as mature, patient, caring and emotionally intelligent – the downside was the lower level of positions for which they would be considered.

Most of the managers would automatically limit the types of positions for which they would consider a stay-home mother for, stating that they would be “forced” to offer flexible hours, would not consider these women for positions involving travel, and would limit them to office-bound jobs and administrative roles.

Using words like “coordinating”, “assisting”, “filling-in” and “organising”, the managers’ responses suggested they would consider stay-at-home mothers for administrative jobs with less responsibility rather than managerial or supervisory roles.

“The responses all implied that previously stay-at-home mothers would have a limited ability to contribute in the workplace. The suggested administrative roles are generally lower-paid, impacting on working mothers’ income potential and opportunities to be promoted,” said Tukani.

He said that an emphasis on roles with lower responsibility and less opportunity for advancement could result in “competent women leaving their employment and the loss of scarce skills for organisations”.

On their previous experiences with hiring women who had been stay-at-home mothers, the managers mostly pointed to their skills having become “rusty”, either forgetting what they had learned or taking time to get up to speed with new skills and procedures.

However, the managers had also seen benefits in hiring women after a child-rearing career break, perceiving them as having positive attitudes, strengths in uniting teams, motivation and “a drive to succeed due to their added family responsibilities”.

They also mentioned the women’s creativity, innovation and efficiency, and that they were well-suited to roles involving high levels of teamwork and a need for conflict resolution skills – contradicting the perception that they were better suited to administrative jobs.

Tukani said that it appeared that time spent raising children had a positive impact on mothers, from which the workplace could benefit.

“Stay-at-home mothers would do well to apply to organisations that hire for attitude rather than skill. It would also be useful to maintain their skills and networks while taking a career break,” he advised.

He said it was positive that the managers mostly recognised the need for awareness, education and dialogue to shift negative perceptions and change organisational cultures, suggesting interventions such as more flexible working hours and changes in policy and legislation to ensure equal opportunities for working mothers.

Tukani recommends that human resources policies, historically developed for male-dominated workplaces, need to be revised to cater for “the complexities of women’s social roles and careers”.

“Face time at the office has traditionally been a measure of a ‘good employee’, and their performance and commitment, but progressive companies are now focusing more on measuring and rewarding actual performance, irrespective of where and when the work is done.”

“Technology makes it easier to allow for flexibility in hours and in working from home, even beyond the current trend for remote working due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and companies should consider how they can use technology to bring about flexibility and accommodate the needs of working mothers,” he said.

He also recommended that women seek out employment with progressive companies that offer programmes that enable women to retain their company links and return to their jobs after an extended period of maternity leave.

 Lunga Takani is a chartered accountant (CA(SA)) and University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) MBA graduate, currently heading up Internal Audit at Sovereign Foods. He is passionate about education, having worked in the public education sector and still serving on the boards of non-profit education organisations.

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