Op-Ed: Three Factors Are Creating the Perfect Storm to Derail Young Mothers' Careers

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  • Intensive parenting, the pandemic’s impact on child care and remote work have hamstrung working mothers.
  • A 2018 study of working mothers in the U.S. and U.K. found that feeling pressure to be a perfect mom was positively correlated with guilt, stress and less work-family balance.
  • During the months in which schools and child-care services were unavailable in the pandemic, parents took on an average of an additional 40 hours of child care per week, according to a study in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

I don't believe in conspiracies. However, if I could create the perfect plan to derail the progress of professional young women with children, it would be playing out right now. 

Three forces – intensive parenting, the pandemic, and working from home – have collided with such power that decades of advancement may be erased.

Professional women who are raising a family may need to recommit, reinforce or even revise their own family and career aspirations.  

1.The pressures of intensive parenting

The evolution of parenting looms large in this discussion. The dynamic nature of the word itself taking on a larger and more encompassing role than "having a family" meant 50 years ago. The concept of intensive parenting first appeared in the 1990s, becoming more mainstream in the 2000s. It described a high-touch style, initially meant to combat the fact that the generation of children being born in the U.S. were less likely to achieve a higher level of financial success than their own parents.  

Over the years, the focus has moved away from a financial benefit to a holistic belief that more is better when it comes to parental involvement. Today, mothers are reportedly spending more time caring for their children and shuttling them to activities compared to mothers in the 1970s.

The current population of well-educated and career-oriented young women were taught that professional achievement and motherhood should not be mutually exclusive – a highly desirable goal that remains challenging. These same women now face pressure to be exceptional at whatever they do, including motherhood.    

A 2018 study of working mothers in the U.S. and U.K. found that feeling pressure to be a perfect mother was positively correlated with guilt, stress, less work-family balance, and ultimately, lower career ambitions.

Some women in the financial services industry note there's a trade-off: The more time they spend with their children, the less time they can focus on their jobs.

There's also a price for stepping away from the workforce.

"Career breaks for childcare reasons last longer than women estimate," said Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, a career re-entry consultancy.

"They think they're only going to be out a year or two, and the next thing you know, five or 10 years have gone by," she said.

2. Reduced access to child care in the pandemic

The second factor is the pandemic. During the months in which schools and child-care services were remote or closed, parents undertook on average an additional 40 hours of child care per week, up from around 20 hours prior to the pandemic, according to a study in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

Women already provided close to two-thirds of that responsibility prior to the pandemic and took on a similar share of the additional hours during the pandemic, according to the study.

It's amazing that parents of young children could get their jobs done at all.    

Another U.K.-based study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education showed that women were 47% more likely to have left the workforce than men, in large part because of child-care duties. This negative employment effect on women has been more pronounced than during a typical recession.

3. Less visibility in the remote office

The third factor that may unfold as detrimental to working mothers in certain professions is the hybrid work model emerging as the norm in many fields.

The dual office/work-from-home approach may favor people with the most face time and physical proximity to those making promotion and compensation decisions. Mothers who prefer flexibility in their workplace and choose to work remotely may inadvertently hurt their own progress.

While no study has shown a connection between employee visibility to each other and productivity, data has illustrated that when men report to senior men, there is a positive relationship between physical proximity and promotion rates.

Prior to the pandemic, there has been evidence of the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome that can affect advancement within companies. 

Organizations are learning how to improve training, collaboration, relationship-building, and measurements of success across hybrid work models, but this is a multi-year effort. Severe damage to large swathes of the workforce, especially to young women with children, may occur before remedies are in place. 

A supportive and partnering spouse, reliable childcare, and the willingness to relinquish the reins at times are necessary for any mother who wants to maintain a career. Taking a few years off is an option, but these requirements will be paramount whenever these women return to the workforce. Even with much more flexibility from employers, there will be considerable financial sacrifices in the near term before reaching the long-term benefit from a successful career.

As a mother who worked when my four children were young – largely because no other options were available – I realize that an implication that mothers spend less time with their children seems callous.  Employers are much more understanding of both parents taking time for their offspring. Parents must arrive at a equitable solution to each other's personal needs.

Karen Firestone is chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Aureus Asset Management, an investment firm dedicated to providing contemporary asset management to families, individuals and institutions.

Copyright CNBC
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