Category Archives: Leadership

From Motherhood to Leadership

In 2019 I begin my PhD. It’s going to take me 3-4 years.

I propose to bring together three streams of research; learning, leadership, and feminine studies, to understand, and make recommendations around, how to better design leadership development programs for women leaders, specifically mothers, and close the gender gap.

We know that women are still underrepresented in leadership positions.

The results of a survey of 705 New Zealand organisations (Diversity Works New Zealand, 2017) reported that, in approximately 20% of organsiations, women make up less than 25% of leadership and governance teams. This is even more so for larger organisations.

The current research around this challenge appears to be siloed. The challenges for mothers returning to work is discussed (e.g. Nichols & Roux, 2004), the opportunities for women to take on leadership roles, and the style in which they do so, is unpicked (e.g. Madsen & Andrade, 2018; Ely et al, 2011). But new insights into the leadership gender gap, and what to do about it, could come from a more holistic and integrated understanding of the home factors affecting return to work, and women’s ability to take on leadership roles.

Research into learning supports this view that understanding performance in role cannot be isolated to one variable. The ‘AMO framework’ (Boxall & Purcell, 2011) argues that all employee performances are a function of employee ability (A), motivation (M), and the opportunity to perform (O). In Sterling & Boxall (2011) we showed that learning could be short-circuited, much like a three-legged stool, where any one of ability, motivation, or opportunity is deficient. I propose that AMO is also a useful lens to apply to the women in leadership challenge.

Kennedy, et al. (2012) argues that leadership development needs to be focused on mindset. Returning to work after becoming a mother is hard and often viewed negatively (Nichols & Roux, 2006). Invariably this is going to affect motivation to lead and any learning that needs to go along with an ability, or mindset, to do so. But current explorations linking leadership and motherhood together are limited to the counselling profession (e.g. Levitt, 2011).

Interventions to address this need to look at the whole system – not just within the box of a leadership development intervention or blanket work/life policies. The manifestation of a negative unconscious bias towards women could result in limited opportunities to apply leadership skills (Madsen & Andrade, 2018). And the positive effects of worklife practices on the proportion of women in management positions was not observed in organisations that were male dominated (Kalysh et al. 2016). The opportunities for women to lead are still limited.

But we now get to the crux of this challenge. What is the specific leadership value that women, particularly mothers, bring to our organisations? And, therefore, do we need more of them? Billing and Alverson (2000) point out that ‘feminine’ leadership traits are not necessarily the ideal for our organisations – in particular those that value a drive for results over relationship building. So is this more about a paradigm shift in how our organisations operate? “The most important role of leadership development is to renew the leadership concept so that it reflects the new challenges, changes, and strategic directions that organisations face” (Probert & James, 2011). Personally, I’d like to think that there is untapped value in mothers to lead. But do they even want to in the current context?

I’ve just scratched the surface of the research into the multiple variables at play here. It’s a precarious balance between leadership and motherhood; the leadership abilities needed to step up, the motivation to participate with everything else going on in a mother’s life, and the opportunity to do so within the organisational context.

The immensity of the life shift that comes from becoming a parent could be better appreciated. It’s something I have very fresh and first hand knowledge of; becoming a mother, and navigating the significant psychological shift that comes along with that, then returning to a very ‘masculine’, results orientated corporate environment. Alongside my own experience, I see my peers – women / mothers of the same age and stage – leaving the workforce altogether or ‘dumbing-down’ their roles because it’s simply too hard for them to meaningfully contribute. It’s more a case of not wanting it all. I propose to undertake qualitative research that encompases a broad spectrum of systems and structures affecting mothers as leaders, with a view to making recommendations on what could be done differently to close the gender gap.



Billing, Y. and Alverson, M. (2000). Questionning the notion of Feminine Leadership: A Critical Perspective on the Gender Labellng of Leadership. Gender, Work and Organization. 7(3), 144-157.

Boxall, P. and Purcell, J. (2011). Strategy and Human Resource Management, 3rd edn, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Diversity Works New Zealand, (2017). New Zealand Diversity Survey. 2017 Bi-Annual Report – October. Retrieved from: 4th October 2018.

Ely, R., Ibarra, H. and Kolb, D. (2011). Taking Gender into Account: Theory and Design for Women’s Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education. 10(3).

Kalysh, K., Kulik, C., Perera, S. (2016). Help or hindrance? Work-life practices and women in management. The Leadership Quarterly. 27. 504-518.

Kennedy, F., Carroll, B., Francoeur, J. (2012). Mindset Not Skill Set: Evaluating in New Paradigms of Leadership Development. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 15(1). 10-26.

Levitt, D. (2011). Women and Leadership: A Developmental Paradox? Adultspan Journal. 9(2), 66-75.

Madsen, S. and Andrade, M. (2018). Unconscious Gender Bias: Implications for Women’s Leadership Development. Journal of Leadership Studies. 12(1).

Nichols, M. and Roux, G. (2004). Maternal Perspectives on Postpartum Return to the Workforce. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing. 33(4).

Probert, J. and James, K. (2011). Leadership Development: Crisis, opportunities and the leadership concept. Leadership. 7(2), 137-150.

Sterling, A. and Boxall, B. (2013). Lean production, employee learning and workplace outcomes: a case analysis through the ability-motivation-opportunity framework. Human Resource Management Journal. 23(3).