The inequalities of motherhood

I’ve started my PhD research with feminism and women’s rights in general, keeping an eye out for maternal issues. I went into this topic naïve. Surely we’ve come a long way with equality? What do we need feminism for? Apparently I’m not alone in this assumption that women actually have equal rights and that the objectives of feminism have been achieved. And that’s part of the problem. The inequities are masked more insidiously. To such an extent that as I was reading about the grip of consumerism, the failed promises that greater opportunities present, and the lack of value placed on motherhood, I was uncomfortably confronted with elements of my own story – of injustices that I had not attributed to my gender or maternal status but had instead owned as my individual problem.

If you’re not familiar with feminism, as I have been, then this definition from Wikipedia (2019) is a helpful starting point:

“Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes”.

Women’s rights movements have given us greater choice. We now have greater access to education and work opportunities outside the home. But as Angela McRobbie (2009) argues in her book ‘The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change’ our work and wage earning capacity now dominates our self-identity and this is a double-edged sword, especially for mothers.

Occupational status is important to women and we are celebrated for what we achieve; money, success, position. It’s a potent and attractive kind of freedom. But this results-orientated approach supports the behaviours of a capitalist ecosystem that makes it impossible for mothers to participate. More specifically, demonstrating commitment and work ethic by being present for long hours in the office, and being on call when the employer needs.

In Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality, Shani Orgad (2019) conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 35 mothers ‘outside of paid employment’. Most of these women had come from senior leadership or director roles, but the structural inequalities and oppressive expectations that these women had repeatedly experienced had prevented them balancing work and family (Ograd, 2019). This compounds both parents. The expectations on the mothers to ‘put in the time’ influences their decision to meld into the domestic default, and fathers working long hours further re-enforces this default.

Harriet Bradley in Gender (2013) gives two main barriers to women’s equality; motherhood and violence towards women. Shani Orgad (2019) agrees that motherhood presents the most significant challenge women face and McRobbie (2009) points out that maternity is seen as the failure of the working girl. Bradley’s (2013) two main barriers are not mutually exclusive. ‘Violence’ includes ‘Normative Violence’ (Bradley, 2013), the demeaning things we don’t even notice because they’re so commonplace, e.g. catcalling, but also workplace discrimination. Examples of these are illustrated through initiatives such as the Everyday Sexim Project (see Vachhani & Pullen, 2018) and this piece of data that Ograd (2019) shares: “In the UK 60,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, a figure that does not account for women who suffer harassment, are overlooked for promotion or loose contracts if they self-employed”. (pg. 43)

So what does this mean for the work that women do undertake? Bradley (2013) refers to vertical segregation; career paths where there are a greater proportion of women (e.g. nursing, care-giving); and, horizontal segregation; where women are more likely to hold junior positions (e.g. admin, clerical duties). All roles that are lower valued and lower paid. But potentially offer less responsibility and greater opportunities for flexibility? According to Statistics NZ (2014), one in three employed women work part-time, compared to one in ten men, and this work is concentrated in the kinds of lower paid, segregated, roles that Bradley (2013) describes. What do you think this means when families are deciding who will stay at home, or cut hours, to look after the family?

We hit roadblocks when we become a mother and these are pre-priming women for inequality In Shani Ograd’s (2019) research the mothers were telling their daughters to not do anything too ‘high-flying’ because one day they might have to give it up. This is not what these mothers wanted for their daughters. I wonder how many intelligent, motivated, and highly educated young women are already considering ‘easier’ career trajectories that would better accommodate their future babies?

When I was thinking about how I frame up this topic the metaphor that kept coming to mind was of a snake eating its own tail. We just keep going around and around as each aspect of this challenge compounds and re-enforces default positions and gender inequalities. We attribute the progress we have made in work and education as the achievement of women’s rights. But new forms of feminism emphasise our individual responsibilities to ‘lean in’ (Sandberg, 2015), and build our confidence (Cuddy, 2012). This illusion of equality, or the promise of it if we’d only try a bit harder, individualises us and distracts from the systems and structures that undermine women, especially mothers in the workplace.

I feel like I have quite a number of rabbit holes to go down in order to do this research justice. Some of this involves unravelling myths around; work/life-balance or work/life blend; the gig-economy, freelancing and entrepreneurship (or mumpreneurs) as a panacea; what we see as ‘perfect’ motherhood; what we tell ourselves about how inclusive and diverse our business are; and ‘faux’ feminist empowerment centred around consumerism. But I’m also uncovering more questions, like; how are men being supported, or not, to create space for women? What did women’s rights movements do, or not do? What is the value that we could place on motherhood? And, what is the impact of work defining our identity on maternal mental health?  This is only the beginning!


Bradley, H. (2013). Gender. (2nd Ed.) Polity Press.

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language may shape who you are. TED.Retrieved 1st March,

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change. Sage.

Ograd, S. (2019). Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality. Columbia University Press.

Sandberg, S. (2015). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf.

Statistics New Zealand. (2014). Measuring the gender pay gap. Available from

Vachhani, S. & Pullen, A. (2018). Ethics, politics and feminist organizing: Writing feminist infrapolitics and affective solidarity into everday sexism. Human Relations. Vol. 72(1). 23-47.

Wikipedia. (2019). Feminism. Retrieved 1st March.


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