How to tap into hidden talent by offering women higher quality part-time opportunities

Women often face considerable stigma for continuing to work while taking care of their children. In German we have the derogatory term Rabenmutter (literally raven mother) to imply someone is a bad mother – which is often applied to working mothers.

In reporting about women in leadership positions, mothers often have to endure comments about their motherhood, and how they even manage to have time to spend with their children. Such questions are hardly ever levelled at men in similar positions, despite them being fathers.

Due to such cultural expectations and the very realistic demands of motherhood and childcare, many women do not return to their former jobs after maternity. Among those who do re-enter the labour force, many only take part time positions, as more of their time is now occupied with unpaid labour. Often these part-time jobs are lower skilled and pay less than their original jobs, making them a professional downgrade. And even those mothers who return to their old jobs often see a stagnation in their career prospects. 

The Burden of Unpaid Labour

Having children and potentially putting a career on hold is not something every woman wants. In fact, studies show that increasingly more young people deliberately chose to go childless. But for the women who do, the statistics on working mothers are dire.

A UK-based study from 2018 showed that only 27.8% of mothers work full-time or self-employed five years after giving birth, compared to a sweeping 90% among fathers. The same study also found that within those five years, 17% of mothers fully leave employment while only 4% of fathers do the same.

Graph breaking down barriers to working full-time among mothers. Source

Going part-time is often hailed as the holy grail for working parents, but that is no perfect solution either. Part-time work is associated with stigma too; it is often framed as being less committed to your work or your employer than your colleagues working full-time position. A common issue with going part-time is schedule creep: the pressure for an employee to output the same amount of work they used to when working full-time. This can lead to employees essentially working full-time hours or shouldering the same amount of work, on part-time pay.

Due to that kind of stigma, part-time positions are often of lower quality compared to what would be equivalent full-time positions. They are lower skilled and allow for less responsibility, and often pay worse and provide fewer benefits. Another UK study from 2012 found that among the women taking up part-time positions after maternity, between 42-48% depending on their income and level of education, were accepting jobs that paid less and were lower skilled.  

Infrastructure and Opportunities as a Solution

While these statistics indicate that maternity can be a great separator in the female workforce, this is not necessarily true everywhere. OECD data from 2012 suggests that countries like the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and the UK are outliers. In most other countries included in the data, the percentage of mothers working part-time floats around 20% or significantly lower.

OECD Data on the percentages of mothers working part and full-time. Source

Denmark and Sweden stand out particularly in the data, with over 80% of mothers working, only 10% of them in part-time positions. But what enables these women to balance their careers and families so well?

Infrastructure like comprehensive childcare and paid parental leave, as well as more equitable expectations about parenthood and working parents are likely strong contributors in enabling so many women to become working mothers.

Indeed, the 2012 study I previously mentioned, suggested that there were three main ways to support working mothers. By offering better and more affordable childcare, employment options which are more flexible, and more opportunities for high-skilled part-time work.  

We also need to include fathers in our framework of working parents. Paternity leave is becoming more widespread, but despite this we only ever speak of working mothers, and hardly ever of working fathers. The idea that watching your own child while their mother has an evening off is “babysitting” and not simply parenting, is still common among many men.

Change is Necessary

Framing only one parent as the primary caregiver for children means that that parent is shouldering more of the unpaid labour associated with childcare, leaving them less time to perform paid labour. This is something the pandemic has painfully highlighted for many mothers. As schools and kindergartens shut or moved to online teaching, many mothers suddenly had to juggle full-time childcare on top of full-time work.

Considering the disparity of the OECDs data, shows us that change is clearly possible. There are active steps that the government and employers can take to support working women and make their re-entry into employment easier. There is a lot of hidden talent and potential among mothers that employers are simply neglecting, while these women functionally find themselves locked out of fulfilling opportunities or the labour force as a whole.


Going Part Time Can Be A Cruel Trap For Women, But There’s A Way To Do It Right | HuffPost Life

How women’s employment changes after having a child | Understanding Society

Is the German insult ‘Raven mothers’ holding back women at work? – BBC News

Opinion: Working mothers stigmatized in Germany – DW – 04/21/2021

Studie: Über Managerinnen wird anders berichtet als männliche Chefs – Business Insider

The price of motherhood: women and part-time work • Resolution Foundation

This is where mothers work the longest hours | World Economic Forum

Women Are Majority of Workforce, But Still Face Challenges | Time

Women in the Workplace: How to Retain Female Talent – TalentCulture

Women’s Preference For Part-Time Work Could Negatively Impact American Medicine.

Working-class women who work part-time: choice or necessity? | Esade – Do Better