The Great Leaders You Might be Leaving Out

Re-entering the formal workforce after years starting and supporting a family was a daunting prospect. I had chosen to throw myself wholeheartedly into managing a household, moving back and forth internationally, juggling an entrepreneurial art career, and raising a young child. Each year the obstacle of returning to an office seemed more and more challenging with a longer gap on my resume, then came the pandemic, so I delayed my return.

However, in the process of becoming a mother and navigating international moves, I gained a completely new identity, strength in areas I didn’t even know existed, and an ability to create effective processes. Would anyone in the workplace understand or even acknowledge this growth that happened inside of me during these years outside of a traditional office? I wasn’t so sure anyone would.

This isn’t a story unique to myself, there is a reoccurring v-shaped employment pattern for women during times like the summer where childcare challenges are more present. In fact, around 10 million US mothers living with their school-age children were not actively working in January 2021 of the pandemic due to the industries many women work in, and due to the extreme childcare challenges of shut-downs during COVID. This drastic shift in women leaving the workforce has not only negatively impacted the career trajectory for many women, but has also negatively impacted the businesses and organizations they left. What left along with these women was their talent and institutional knowledge.

Recent research by Angela Passarelli and Spela Trefalt has brought to light a staggering reality: the ‘Motherhood Penalty.” An article profiling this research by Elizabeth Weingarten describes this phenomena as employers not understanding the link between “new mother,” and “leadership potential,” instead thinking that motherhood leads to a depreciation in leadership skills.

Weingarten, E. (2022, May 4). This may be the way to cancel the ‘motherhood penalty’ and develop leaders. Fast Company.

Are there some resumes sitting in the stack with gaps from time away from the workforce to raise a family that haven’t even been considered? Are there women on your team juggling daycare drop offs and pickups after sleepless nights that might have an extraordinary ability to multitask, persevere through challenges, AND read the room in an instant that could potentially lead a team to new heights?

Weingarten says Neuroscience research suggests that, “[…] new parents undergo changes in their brain that allow them to be more present, to empathize with others to collaborate more effectively, and even to respond to stress in a more adaptive way.”

Luckily for me, our CEO and President Diana Rivenburgh saw that there were unique skills I’d honed in the years of early motherhood that could be an asset. She not only hired me onto the team, but has consistently worked to mentor, coach, and provide resources for me to translate the leadership skills I learned becoming a mother. If more leaders had the same awareness and understanding that not only are these skills transferrable to the professional arena, but could potentially be an asset, the script on motherhood and leadership potential could be completely flipped.

This coaching I’ve received from Diana is exactly the kind of coaching that Passarelli and Trefalt’s research suggests can support mothers through this transitional period of their careers and impact women’s desire to stay in the workplace after returning from leave. Maternal coaching can change the story on the role of motherhood and its impact on leadership qualities and close the gap of retaining talented employees in the transitional period of early motherhood.

So how can leaders make this shift to maternal coaching, and when?

Passarelli suggests a coaching program should, “start as soon as the pregnancy begins […] That’s when the identity shift happens, that’s when [women] begin to face major inequities at work […].”

Passarelli and Trefalt also recommend that coaching be provided to both women AND their managers which could help a manager avoid well-intentioned behaviors driven by sexism.

The key takeaways exist mainly in awareness of leaders who have young mothers or new mothers on their team. When leaders shift their own mindset and view motherhood as an asset for leadership rather than a roadblock, cultural change can occur throughout the organization.

One way to easily make sure young mothers or new mothers aren’t being screened out of the hiring process or the leadership ladder would be to assess your employees on the drives, needs and talents they bring to the table rather than their status as a parent or the gaps on their resume.

It has been a true privilege to work for Diana and with our clients at Strategic Imperatives to help leaders gain awareness, institute fair and repeatable hiring practices that consider all candidates, and to find those with the best fit for their organizations and the role. Beyond the job offer, the best leaders and managers institute strong onboarding, development, coaching and mentoring practices to engage and develop employees throughout their career trajectory. It’s a win-win for these organizations and their people.

Go past the resume and assess candidates based on their fit to a role, their needs and drives in the workplace, and the unique talents they bring into the workplace.

Build awareness before you hire by signing up for a free trial of the PI Hire 2.0 hiring solution. You can take the guesswork out of hiring, hire better employees, and create fair and repeatable hiring practices!

Works Cited:

MISTY L. HEGGENESS, J. F. (2021). Tracking Job Losses for Mothers of School-Age Children During a Health Crisis. United States Census Bureau.

Weingarten, E. (2022, May 4). This may be the way to cancel the ‘motherhood penalty’ and develop leaders. Fast Company.