The ‘motherhood penalty’ and its ‘outdated and toxic attitudes’ are driving women out of the workplace

With more mothers working than ever before, you might have expected the outdated trope that women’s career aspirations die after having children would have been squashed. However, that old-school mentality has driven a quarter of a million mothers to quit their jobs, according to an equal rights charity.

By Orianna Rosa Royle,

To be precise, the Fawcett Society has estimated that 249,124 working mothers in Britain have left their jobs, with “outdated and toxic attitudes around motherhood” and childcare pressures forcing them to choose between a demotion or leaving the workforce altogether.

“Too often, outdated prejudices and assumptions mean that women face unnecessary and harmful attitudes that hold them back,” Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society said in a statement. “This results in many women stuck in roles that are below their capabilities.”

Despite assumptions that pregnant women and mothers are less interested in career progression, the charity’s survey of 3,000 working parents of pre-schoolers, conducted jointly with recruitment firm Totaljobs, found that most working moms remained just as ambitious after a baby—and nearly half became more ambitious.

Yet their career aspirations are being overlooked: Almost 70% reported that their career development has suffered since becoming a mother and two-thirds feel their capabilities and contributions are undervalued or overlooked at work.

Instead, according to the research, working moms are being consigned to low-paying jobs with little opportunity for growth.

On average, Fawcett Society found that mothers with two children earn 26% less than women without children. Fathers, on the other hand, see their earnings rise.

Workplace inflexibility sets working moms back

It’s not that working mothers can’t earn more, it’s that the lack of flexibility across the board leaves them with limited choice. According to the research, over a third of mothers could advance their careers but they are stuck in their current job due to the flexibility it provides.

Meanwhile, 41% of the mothers surveyed had turned down a promotion or career development opportunity because they worried it would not fit with childcare arrangements.

It’s thus unsurprising that mothers, stuck in a low-paid role with limited growth prospects, are twice as likely as fathers to consider leaving their jobs because of the burden of childcare.

“It isn’t good enough to have supportive policies on paper, businesses need to make those a reality in the workplace and create genuinely family-friendly cultures,” Olchawski said.

She said that businesses can help end the motherhood penalty by enabling working mothers to balance their careers and caring responsibilities.

Previous anecdotal research in Fortune found that the proliferation of remote and hybrid work has significantly helped working mothers juggle the demands of childcare and a career.

“I think if I hadn’t got that flexible working, I wouldn’t have come back,” Melissa Schofield an account executive who recently rejoined the workforce admitted. “It’s given me a lot of confidence, really, that I can work because I can juggle it, and I think it just makes my whole work-life balance so much better.”

But these gains risk being erased. Already 30% of mothers are reporting challenges in finding flexible work hours.

Ultimately, as firms demand workers return to the office, working moms will disproportionately have to weigh up whether they can afford to pay more for childcare—or take a step back in their careers.

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