A mother is not an ideal worker, and why that matters for everyone

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In my experience the term ‘best person for the job’ has been used to rationalise why people are hired, promoted, rewarded and recognised. This is seemingly justified by skills and attributes listed on paper, or even by hiring for ‘cultural fit’. Yet this term ‘best’ is informed by unconscious subtexts that shape decision-making. It is these undercurrents that define the ‘ideal’ worker and position mothers as deviant, not fitting in, to these characteristics. Where often mothers are described as making the choice to leave paid employment, structural discrimination makes it less about choice and more about gravitating to the least fraught and tensioned decisions; flexible or part-time work, or leaving the workforce altogether. This is you, your mother, your sister, your wife or partner, your friend; who does not have equal opportunities to participate. A mother is not an ‘ideal’ worker.

The ‘ideal’ worker is shaped by some very current, and topical, environmental pressures. Mainly global competition and technology increasing workloads and driving accessibility (Gascoigne, Parry, & Buchanan, 2015). Symptoms include working faster and harder with fewer breaks, longer and unsociable hours, traveling more, and 24/7 availability (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014; Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Where autonomy exists over start and finish times, the ‘ideal’ worker will ‘choose’ to work longer hours, or rationalise work to greater intensity (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). The ‘ideal’ worker understands that ‘full-time’ means overtime, and competitive presenteeism is rewarded and recognised (Crosby, Williams, & Biernat, 2004). The ‘ideal’ worker is someone able to assimilate to an ‘all in’ commitment to work. Leadership potential is measured through their ability to do so. The ‘ideal’ worker is a man, either without caregiving responsibilities, or someone at home to take care of them (Padavic et al, 2019; Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). The ‘ideal’ worker is not a mother with pressures that pull her away.


This ‘ideal’ worker archetype is pervasive through the research into why significant amounts of mothers exit the workforce. It assumes that jobs are a thing apart from the humans that inhabit them, and that organisations are abstract and bodiless (Acker, 1990). You leave your humanity at the door when you step into work. Work is meetings, timeframes, hierarchies, policies, procedures; logical, rational, planned and ordered. A place where compliance with certainty is valued over uncertainty. Home is the embodiment of humanity; love, family, emotion, birth, death, sickness; messiness, uncertainty, and unpredictability. This distinction may go some way to explain why ‘softer’ skills go undervalued in organisations. For example, evaluating and rewarding jobs based on concrete examples of task completion e.g. managing money vs. human relations (Acker, 1990). But we’re not whole humans when we have to make the choice every day between love (family/home) and work (Padavic, et al. 2019). Both men and women feel this anxiety, but mothers ultimately pay the price for it.


The reality is that overlap is not welcomed or encouraged between the separate spheres of work and home. Home mirrors the very chaotic environmental factors that most organisations are trying to dominate. Women describe compensating for, or hiding, their domestic responsibilities (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). As the very embodiment of our leaky and corporeal humanity, maternity and breastfeeding are out of place at work. Mothers comport their bodies to fit in or hide behind stoicism so as not to draw attention (Gatrell, 2019). Raising children and child sickness compromises the distinction between the spheres (Crosby et al., 2004; Haynes, 2008). The ‘good’ mother narrative tells us mothers should be natural, embodied and child-centric. But the pressure to fulfill the ‘good’ mother and the ‘ideal’ worker makes the role of mother and professional worker incompatible.


So it’s easier to comply with pervasive ‘appropriate’ gender roles then battle against them. Being a ‘breadwinner’ is still a socially accepted norm for men. Men can be the ‘ideal’ worker while simultaneously demonstrating devotion by providing for their family (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). They’re judged less, and even applauded for it. Mothers are held to a higher, and irreconcilable, standard. A bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The successful mother, ‘ideal’ worker, means she is an inactive parent and not a ‘good’ mother (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Women role models either don’t have children, the ‘honourable man’ (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014), or looked at with “I don’t want to be ‘that mother’” sentiment.


In an engineered experiment, 260 participants – a mix of male and female – were asked to review CVs/ jobs applications that were essentially identical except for gender and parental status (Benard & Correll, 2010). Participants had to comment, rate and make recommendations on whether that person should be hired, and what they should be paid. Mothers who were successful at work were perceived as significantly less warm and likeable than successful fathers, less likely to be recommended for hire, and had lower starting salaries. Interestingly, females were more likely than males to discriminate against mothers. Benard & Correll (2010) suggest that this could have something to do with the perceived, and real, barriers that women face; a successful women is an unattainable threat to self-concept.


The ‘ideal’ worker pressures, inability to bring humanity into work, and gender norms mean that mothers are more likely to take part-time, flexible work options, or leave paid employment altogether. But these paths are more likely to be a career derailing ‘off-ramps’ for mothers (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Part-time, and/or flexible work, demonstrates lack of commitment to the ‘ideal’ worker and is linked to lower status (Padavic et al, 2019). Being passed over for promotion, having interesting work dry up, doing less responsible duties, being paid less (sometimes on a pro-rata rate but still delivering the outcomes of a full-time worker), are just a few examples of legally ambiguous and damaging practices that leave mothers feeling undervalued and ultimately exiting the workforce. Crosby et al. (2004) calls this the ‘maternal wall’. There is also some suggestion that the gender pay gap may be a motherhood gap (Glass, 2004).


Women’s exit from the labour market is often positioned as a preference for domesticity and motherhood. It’s a ‘choice’ to leave the full-time workforce. But we “disempower women by endorsing their exit as a natural, almost inevitable consequence.” (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014 pg. 58).  The systemic, structural and normative discrimination bundled up in how work is organised, and what gets recognised and rewarded, leaves little room for ‘choice’. Long hours work cultures are detrimental to both men and women but women pay the higher price (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Mothers face a ‘take it or leave it’ situation. “Either the mother commits to the working practices of dominant masculinity, that is boundless time schedules, a suppressed personal life and a reduced investment in care, reinforcing what some mothers feel is a destructive work paradigm, or they must accept lower-status work” (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014. pg . 67).


In the last five years the New Zealand Human Rights Commission has received reports of 133 cases of alleged discrimination due to pregnancy or maternity (Human Rights Commission, personal communication, March 29, 2019). This number is disturbingly low and suggests that current methods of defining discrimination against mothers are attached to deviant behaviours of individual actors rather than systems and structures that prevent mothers participating. As Cahusac & Kanji (2014) put it “every adult should be economically active and afforded equal opportunities” (pg. 467). But the focus on interventions such a flexible work policies positions this as an individual concern to balance family responsibilities. It excuses leaders from addressing the underlying challenges for mothers to participate. If women ‘prefer’ to be with their families then leaders cannot be held accountable to that (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019).


Acker (1990) calls for an end to organisations as they exist today “along with a redefinition of work and work relations” pg. 155. But if we want to give real weight to conversations about diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities, I suggest shifting the conversation from work/life balance to work/life blend and bringing humanity into work. Not just for mothers, but for everyone. This means getting comfortable with the visceral, messy, embodied, chaotic, parts of ourselves.  A mother is not an ‘ideal’ worker, but she could be something better and that would benefit everyone.



Acker. (1990). Hierachies, jobs, bodies: A theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139–158.

Benard, S., & Correll, S. J. (2010). Normative Discrimination and the Motherhood Penalty. Gender & Society, 24(5), 616–646. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243210383142

Cahusac, E., & Kanji, S. (2014). Giving Up: How Gendered Organizational Cultures Push Mothers Out: How Gendered Organizational Cultures Push Mothers Out. Gender, Work & Organization, 21(1), 57–70. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12011

Crosby, F. J., Williams, J. C., & Biernat, M. (2004). The Maternal Wall. Journal of Social Issues, 60(4), 675–682. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-4537.2004.00379.x

Gascoigne, C., Parry, E., & Buchanan, D. (2015). Extreme work, gendered work? How extreme jobs and the discourse of ‘personal choice’ perpetuate gender inequality. Organization, 22(4), 457–475. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508415572511

Gatrell, C. (2019). Boundary Creatures? Employed, Breastfeeding Mothers and ‘Abjection as Practice.’ Organization Studies, 40(3), 421–442. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840617736932

Glass, J. (2004). Blessing or Curse?: Work-Family Policies and Mother’s Wage Growth Over Time. Work and Occupations, 31(3), 367–394. https://doi.org/10.1177/0730888404266364

Haynes, K. (2008). (Re)figuring accounting and maternal bodies: The gendered embodiment of accounting professionals. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33, 328–348. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aos.2007.04.003

Human Rights Commission. (2019, March 29). 190329 – Response to Request for Information.

Padavic, I., Ely, R. J., & Reid, E. M. (2019). Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work–family Narrative as a Social Defense against the 24/7 Work Culture. Administrative Science Quarterly, 000183921983231. https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839219832310

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