When Alicia Iveson joined the advertising agency world, she thought she was about to enjoy the young, progressive culture it’s famed for. “I was confronted with the exact opposite—just really archaic behaviors.”
Iveson could feel the sense of judgment (complete with actual “eye rolls”) coming from her coworkers as she left the office promptly to pick up her child from nursery. She even recalls being forced to join a regular team call during her child’s bathtime to avoid being ‘named and shamed’ for missing it.
“I wasn’t able to spend any quality time with my son because I always felt guilty,” she says, adding that juggling the demands of motherhood and her employer ended up with her dropping the laptop in the bath.
“I was never present to the point that my son would really actively shut down my laptop or tell me to get off the phone,” she adds. “When they’re starting to notice that at only two or three years old, it’s pretty horrific.”
It was at that point that Iveson knew that enough was enough. She is just one of a quarter of a million working mothers in the U.K. alone to quit their jobs because of “outdated and toxic attitudes around motherhood”, according to equal rights charity the Fawcett Society.
This phenomenon is called the motherhood penalty whereby women are incorrectly prescribed as less aspirational because of their motherhood status and overlooked for promotions.
Ultimately it leaves many working moms forced to choose between being consigned to low-paying jobs with little opportunity for growth or leaving the workforce altogether.
On average, the Fawcett Society found that as a result of this prejudice mothers with two children earn 26% less than women without children. Fathers, on the other hand, see their earnings rise.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, this issue extends beyond British soil: Women around the world from France to the United States and Hong Kong told Fortune that they were asked to hide their baby bump from investors, pressured back to the office soon after giving birth and even outright told “mothers don’t succeed here”.
Women are wary of warning signs
Just insinuating you may one day have children is enough to be consigned to the “mommy track”. Lauren Tetenbaum, a lawyer-turned-social worker, told Fortune, adding that mothers are “aware of the motherhood penalty” before they even become mothers.
“They’re afraid in the U.S. to inquire about what the parental leave policies are at a company. They are afraid to ask about childcare benefits when they’re interviewing for a role,” Tetenbaum says. “It’s this unspoken secret that if they ask about it, even if they’re seeking information, they’ll be discriminated against.”
Iveson echoes that she saw warning signs of a toxic attitude around motherhood well before her baby was born. She recalls a coworker watching in horror while she progressively became slower as her pregnancy progressed.
“He said after a meeting that it was like watching his favorite race car breakdown,” she says.
Meanwhile, the 40 workers on a team call where a senior leader was mocking a working mom’s phased return calling her “effectively f–king pointless” seemed to reflect a similar, unwelcoming attitude.
Valerie Mocker of the careers consultancy Wingwomen echoes that any sniff of an outdated attitude towards working mothers is enough to make women leave an organization—whether or not they have children.
“Businesses wonder why do we not have more women at the top? Why do women seem to just leak out? One reason I see on a daily basis for the leaky pipeline is women witnessing the motherhood penalty,” Mocker warns.
Pandemic gains risk being erased
The world of work has changed—or at least, many would have hoped it has. Women increasingly have a seat at the top table of firms and the pandemic gave people an insight into what it’s like juggling childcare and work while nurseries and schools were closed.
“There were so many things that we’ve learned from that around the need for flexibility, particularly around the fact that you can still do the job, but it doesn’t have to be within the nine-to-five framework,” Iveson says.
Sara Madera, a certified career coach who works with working moms says return-to-office mandates are a big worry among “close to 100%” of her clients.
“Not having to commute has helped mums feel like they were on top of it—whether it’s the small tasks at home or being available—and feel more successful,” Madera adds. “So the idea of losing that is really frightening.”
The lack of flexibility across the board is already leaving working mothers with limited career options; According to Fawcett’s research, over a third of mothers could advance their careers but they are stuck in their current job due to the flexibility it provides.
As firms demand workers return to the office, working moms (who are often the lower-earning parent) will disproportionately have to weigh up whether they can afford to pay more for childcare—or take a step back in their careers.
Plus, although much of the anger around offices returning to more traditional times is often directed at male bosses of a certain generation, in Iveson’s experience “women who didn’t have children” were almost equally to blame.
“They had the strongest point of view around it needing to be a bit more of a level playing field, almost like ‘why should you be treated special because you have a child type’ mentality.”
With the corporate world built by and for men, she says that women with “alpha” personalities are filling in the shoes at the top—and so even firms that are spearheaded by female leaders aren’t inherently inclusive for women with children.
“Even with women who do have children because they’re of the hazing mindset of, ‘I went through it, it was really crappy, and I never saw my child, that’s just how it is and I’m going to demand the same from you,’” Tetenbaum agrees.
Working moms are turning to entrepreneurship
Despite assumptions that pregnant women and mothers are less interested in career progression, Fawcett’s research found that most working moms remained just as ambitious after a baby—and nearly half became more ambitious.
It perhaps explains why, in response to their career aspirations being overlooked, working moms are taking matters into their own hands—and becoming their own bosses.
Now, Iveson is the co-founder and CEO at Hijinks Collective, an advertising agency with YouTube and the Royal Navy among its clients. “I’ve got more fire in my belly than I had, not the least because I’m not doing it for myself, but it’s also for myself and my son,” she says.
Meanwhile, Tetenbaum, Madera, and Mocker all claim to have gone self-employed as a direct result of the motherhood penalty. Research echoes that “mompreneurs” are on the rise, with the pandemic highlighting for many women just how much more they could get done with control over their own schedule.
Running your own business is by no means an easy feat—but for the women that Fortune spoke to it’s enabling them to be more present in both the proverbial boardroom and the playroom.
“Not everyone can leave the corporate workforce and be an entrepreneur. But I will say that, once I did, what I was seeking in terms of flexibility and really sort of acting as a grown-up—and what I mean by that is not being on someone’s schedule and being infantilized about signing in at a certain time—sealed the deal,” Tetenbaum says.
“There are still times when I have to work in the evenings but that’s okay. I can take a break in the afternoons and spend time with my kids when they come home from school,” echoes Madera. “I don’t have to ask somebody to do that and get that approval or feel like I’m asking for too much—I have the ownership of that.”