An illustration of a woman running against a clock that is split by two different coloured halves. Half of the woman is dressed as a mother holding a baby, while the other half is dressed as a business professional wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase.
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What is the motherhood penalty and how can Irish workplaces avoid it?

1 Nov 2023

Karen O’Reilly of Employflex explains what companies need to do to cater to working mothers. The answer is flexible working.

Employflex, a Co Cork-based HR firm that specialises in flexible work, has warned that there is a ‘motherhood penalty’ affecting Irish women in the workforce. The company coined the phrase ‘motherhood penalty’ to refer to the tendency for working mothers to be penalised when it comes to things like promotions, career progression opportunities and even general treatment in the workplace.

Karen O’Reilly, founder of Employflex, thinks that employers should keep in mind that “a woman’s psychological contract is much stronger than their male counterparts’ and a woman’s motivation and job satisfaction at work will be positively affected if she feels included, supported and treated fairly”.

According to a small survey Employflex carried out among 475 respondents in October, four out of five people agreed that there is a ‘motherhood penalty’ in the workforce in Ireland. O’Reilly says that the lack of consideration for working mothers means they are leaving their jobs in their droves. To avoid a mass exodus of women and mothers from the workforce, O’Reilly says flexible working practices are key to retaining what she termed “this valuable bank of sticky talent”.

Karen O'Reilly, founder of Employflex, sitting to the right of Helen Walshe, also of Employflex.

Helen Walshe and Karen O’Reilly of Employflex. Image: Employflex

She also claims that when men do not avail of flexible working practices such as reduced hours, remote work and parental leave, it further increases the pressure on women in the workplace. They are made to feel guilty about requesting such accommodations, O’Reilly says. Almost two-thirds of people who answered the survey believe that there is a ‘flexiglass ceiling’, meaning that requesting flexible work impacts a worker’s career.

“From our perspective and talking to women every day who approach us seeking flexible work, we know that women are burnt out and are leaving senior roles, particularly mothers who are experiencing the motherhood penalty while trying to juggle it all.”

On top of the legal requirements that companies are obliged to offer such as parental leave, breastfeeding leave and five unpaid days leave for medical purposes, employers can go a long way to support parents in the workplace by offering the following:

  • A robust maternity leave policy
  • Unbiased recruitment policy
  • Being returner-friendly
  • Learning and development programme with definite career path progression
  • Unconscious bias training
  • Goals and objectives to improve the gender pay gap and tools to measure EDI
  • Networks for all minorities
  • On-site child care facilities, if possible
  • Wellness and self-care initiatives

O’Reilly warns that parents who feel they aren’t being accommodated in the workplace will leave for other employers that do offer flexible working. According to Employflex’s survey, four out of five people said they would leave their current positions for more flexible work. Three-quarters of respondents said flexibility was the most important thing to them, while only 38pc said salary and only 6pc said company perks were their top priorities.

From the employees’ perspective, the feedback showing that the majority of workers in the survey (73pc) said their workplace has some level of flexible working in place is positive. However, 17pc of people did not know if their employer had a policy or not which means there is still a certain amount of companies that may not be fulfilling workers’ needs. And, according to O’Reilly, it is working mothers who bear the brunt of the lack of flexible accommodations. But in the long run, “The losers are the companies who are not hanging on to their valuable diverse talent.”

“We believe many women are not leaving the workforce because they want to stop working, but more that they need more flexibility in their working lives and companies should listen to this. Companies who are not open to flexibility in the workplace are at a high risk of losing these experienced women.”

What does O’Reilly think employers should do to make sure their flexible working policy is working for everyone? Tech tools, regular feedback and good communication are all important to guarantee success, she says. The good thing is that all of these things are quite achievable for employers once they put some thought into their talent retention strategies. A huge budget isn’t needed for flexible working, just a considerate culture, says O’Reilly.

“A robust flexible work policy will need to be drafted out so that everyone knows what is expected of them. Communication is key for any organisation and even more so for companies who are adopting a more flexible approach,” she says, adding that video conferencing tools such as Zoom and workplace communication tools like Slack can help enormously in this regard.

“Team building and culture are going to be more challenging to get right in a very flexible workplace – it’s all about continuously asking your employees if we are doing it right and being authentic in response.”

Sending out anonymised employee feedback surveys, scheduling regular check-ins with workers and making use of project management tools like Trello and Asana are all good ways of making sure that whatever flexible work measures employers implement suit both them and their employees. It has to work for both parties to be successful in the long run.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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