Driving positive solutions to workplace challenges faced by career mums

Women have outnumbered male graduates for the past decade, yet hold fewer than 1 in 5 senior roles


Educated women made up 60 percent of New Zealanders with a post-graduate or honours degree, according to data from the 2013 census. The percentage of educated women was higher in most qualification categories, and for every age category, with the exception of the 65+ age group (Source: Statistics New Zealand).

Whilst women are outnumbered in some fields of study, such as technology and engineering, the overall number of female graduates has outnumbered men for around the last decade.

So why do educated women hold such few senior roles, and continue to earn less than their male counterparts?

Advances are being made to support equal pay, and initiatives are underway to support the number of women in senior roles, as well as the number of women pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

But is this enough? By comparison, very little attention is being given to our leaking talent, and to the challenges faced by women as they endeavour to resume and grow their career following childbirth.

Over a quarter (27.7 percent) of mothers are not in employment. Of those in employment, a third of mothers with youngest child aged under 15 work part time (less than 30 hours per week), reducing slightly to around a quarter for women with youngest child aged under 18. Notwithstanding personal choices, these statistics point to a significant barrier to a woman’s career.

Furthermore, a report issued by Statistics New Zealand showed that, whilst the gender pay gap currently sits at 12 percent, the “motherhood penalty” sits at 17 percent – that being the average difference in pay between a mother and father. A study by PwC reported that around 76 percent of professional women on career breaks want to return to work. Yet 3 in 5 highly skilled and qualified returning professional women could end up in lower-skilled – and, as a result, lower-paid jobs.

Greater focus must therefore be given to supporting women back into the workplace following childbirth. Failing to do this puts us at risk of:

  1. Fuelling our own talent shortage, as women face unnecessary challenges as they resume their career.
  2. Fuelling a declining fertility rate among educated women, as women face a decision between career and family.
  3. Hampering efforts towards gender equality, and its associated benefits to men, women, children, businesses, and the economy.

Considerations for businesses:

  • What is the experience for women returning to work following childbirth, and how are they supported by your business?
  • What are the career prospects for women who work part time and/or by flexible arrangement?
  • How do you support dads to manage their dual role?
  • How visible is your support for working mothers across the business?
  • Who are the role models in your business who manage a career alongside a young family?

Of greatest importance, perhaps, is the need to appreciate that everyone’s needs are different. The one woman who is thriving in her career, with seemingly little need for support, and whilst also raising a young family, should not become the benchmark for other mothers in the workplace. Women have different levels of support around them, different views on childcare participation, different financial pressures, and even factors such as the level of support from their partner’s employer will play a part. In a minority of cases, dads are becoming the main caregiver, allowing mum to return to work full time.

Embracing the opportunity to support and encourage women back into the workplace should be a key component to every business’ gender diversity strategy. Taking an open mind to the needs of women (and men) juggling career and family, engaging in open discussion, and being willing to compromise, is far more likely to result in an optimal arrangement for all parties. What’s more, the rewards to businesses of embracing these opportunities have the potential to be significant.




    • CareerMum

      Great question. Family and employer support can greatly reduce the challenges of managing career or education alongside family – but the support is often underestimated. Welcome further thoughts.

    • CareerMum

      Great question. This has been the general trend for many years – with more women focused on education. But this isn’t balanced across all subjects – and there is great importance in supporting more women into STEM. Welcome your thoughts 🙂

  1. *Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

  2. The one woman who is thriving in her career, with seemingly little need for support, and whilst also raising a young family, should not become the benchmark for other mothers in the workplace.

    • CareerMum

      Yes, agreed! We are quick to compare one situation to another, and downplay the challenges of managing career alongside family. Everyone’s situation is different, and employer support is crucial to reducing the number and magnitude of challenges women face.

      Research by CareerMum highlighted just how much of a difference employer support can make. The other influential factor was a stay at home dad, but this is still very rare.

      The other challenge is that women can appear to be thriving in her career, and as you say with seemingly little need for support, but the reality may be different. We can be very good at disguising our true needs because of fear they come across as a weakness. And because of the divide we have between the personal and professional side of our lives. But no woman is alone in feeling the weight of these challenges – and we must get better at reducing that isolating feeling.

      Thanks for your comments 🙂

    • CareerMum

      Yes they do! And the challenges of managing career alongside family are unfathomable until you experience them first hand – and particularly impact women who are often the main care-giver. So how do we get better at recognising and reducing these barriers?

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