Recently, Katharine Zaleski, the president of PowerToFly, published an apology to all the mothers she has worked with for treating them badly.  In her apology, Zaleski provides numerous examples of this mistreatment – all of them cringe worthy.  Her account vividly brings to life what sociologists call the motherhood penalty – or the penalties mothers pay because of a widespread cultural belief that mothers are less productive and less dedicated employees. 

One time, Zaleski decided not to follow up with an editor on a partnering idea because she had too many pictures of her children in her office.  This led Zaleski to assume that the editor was “too much of a mother” and thus not worth working with. 

Over and over again, Zaleski questioned the commitment and work ethic of mothers.  She would roll her eyes at them if they couldn’t stay late to go out to drinks after work – even if those same mothers arrived two hours earlier in the morning than did a hung-over Zaleski. 

And she didn’t stand up when others made truly disparaging comments like, “We should hurry up and fire another woman before she ‘gets pregnant,” or “How in the world are you going to be able to commit to this job and all your kids at the same time?”

Research has shown that motherhood often results in penalties for women, like decreases in pay and demotions in responsibility.  In fact, motherhood is one of the strongest triggers of bias that women face.  A study by Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll and her colleagues found that compared to childless women, mothers (as indicated by "PTA coordinator” on their resume) are 79% less likely to be recommended for hire, half as likely to be recommended for promotion, and are offered $11,000 less.

What leads to the motherhood penalty is that our cultural conception of motherhood is at odds with our cultural expectations of a good employee.  A good mother is fully dedicated to the needs of her children, while a good employee is fully dedicated to his/her job.  Thus if you are a good mother, you can’t be a stand out employee.  If you are a stand out employee, you can’t be a good mother. 

As for Zaleski, once she became a mother she realized the error of her ways.  At first, she thought the birth of her child meant that her career was now over.  But soon she came to realize that “working mothers” were actually a huge business opportunity. 

She cofounded PowerToFly, which matches women to technical positions that can be done from home.  By being able to work remotely, Zaleski explains that women (including herself and her team) are able to build their work lives “around our lives as mothers.” 

Vodafone too has just launched a maternity leave policy that is designed to better support new mothers, especially as they transition back to work after taking leave.  Vodafone’s policy provides at least 16 weeks of paid leave.  And in addition, for the first six months new mothers are back at work, they can work 30 hours per week and still earn their full pay. 

Undoubtedly, these kinds of flexible jobs and maternity leave policies are critically important to keeping women in the workforce and retaining talent.  Yet, while these efforts are intended to help ease tensions between work and family, such policies can reinforce the very cultural beliefs that give rise to the motherhood penalty in the first place.  By just focusing on mothers, PowerToFly and Vodafone underscore the idea that it’s only mothers who really care for young children.  It’s only mothers who need flexibility.  It’s only mothers who need to reduce their work hours to focus on the home front. 

But what about fathers?  What about those with elder care responsibilities?  What about those who just want more work/life balance?  What about the rest of us?  Certainly mothers are not the only group of people who would greatly benefit from being able to control their work schedules and work remotely. 

As research has found, the problem with these kinds of “mother only” initiatives and policies is that they actually reinforce gender differences and can result in occupational segregation and gender wage gaps.  A comparative study of 20 countries found that mother-friendly policies, including long maternity leaves, tend to exacerbate gender inequalities in the labor market.  For example, extended paid leaves can increase the employment costs of mothers and thus give companies an incentive to discriminate against women.

The answer to these issues is not to do away with these kinds of supports.  The answer is to expand the population of people who get access to them so that flexibility, paid family leave, reduced work hours, and working remotely are the norm for most of us.  That way, mothers are not some exceptional, stigmatized group.  Rather, they are like everyone else. 

If we really want to support mothers, then what we need is for all of us to be able to build our work lives around our personal lives.  This way we can get our jobs done and do our best work while still prioritizing the things that matter to us most. 

This article was originally published May 14, 2015, on