Why Mothering Makes Us Better At Work
This story was written by Amy Henderson and originally published on LinkedIn on May 11, 2017. It struck a chord then and does now with more than 8,000 engagements and more than 400 comments to date.
It’s time, once and for all, to debunk two related myths about motherhood: When a woman becomes a mother she will be less effective at work. When a woman becomes a mother her career will inevitably suffer.
The opposite is true. Both anecdotal evidence and academic research show that women who choose to become mothers develop the capacity to outperform their former non-mom selves in their careers. I know this from personal experience, from interviewing more than 120 high-performing mothers, and from research from a variety of fields, including neuroscience, evolutionary biology, game theory, primate patterns, leadership studies, and more.
In late 2014, I discovered that I was pregnant with our third child. And as much as I loved being a mother, the prospect of having another baby felt like staring down the barrel of a gun. I already had two toddlers—a 3-year-old and an 18-month old—and was working more than full-time as the co-founder of #YesWeCode, a national initiative I'd started with Van Jones, Cheryl Contee, and the support of the rockstar, Prince. Committed to both being present for my kids and performing at a high level in my career, I was sleeping an average of 4-5 hours a night. My husband, an engaged father, turned white when I showed him the little stick with the two pink lines. How could we possibly accommodate another child in our already stressed lives?
When my third child was born I decided to reach out to mothers I admired to learn from them if it were possible to both show up for parenting and build a successful career. In between round the clock feedings and diaper changes, I paced the house with my sleeping infant in my arms, my neck kinked to hold the phone between my cheek and shoulder while I whispered into the receiver: How are you doing it? Please tell me.
What I unearthed in these conversations shocked me. These women—senior vice presidents at tech companies, CEO’s, computer programmers, partners at law firms, nurses, doctors, and more—were performing better in their careers because they had kids, not in spite of them.
And yet, moms are discriminated against in the workforce.
A study pioneered by Shelley Correll, then at Cornell university, found that mothers in the workforce are rated as significantly less competent, less intelligent, and less committed than women without children; and a mother is 79% less likely to be hired, and half as likely to get promoted, when compared to an equally qualified woman without a child.
However, despite this bias, my research shows that mothering makes us better at work.
Motherhood teaches us where we need to grow, and gives us the opportunity to stretch past what we think are our limits to meet the challenge of raising our kids. More than 80% of the moms I interviewed said they’d encountered at least one painful time of reckoning, when they were forced to face difficult things about themselves and/or their relationships with others.
And while these moms had a range of unique and specific areas where they were forced to grow, when I coded the interviews I’d conducted, I found one common theme: nearly all of them developed more and better relationships with the people around them.
This drive to establish stronger bonds with others is neurologically supported. Oxytocin, also known as the ‘bonding hormone,’ is released during childbirth and breastfeeding. According to a 2014 study led by Dr. Ruth Feldman at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, oxytocin is also produced in non-birth parents who engage in caretaking activities for their children. And when oxytocin is present, Dr. Shellye E. Taylor at UCLA has found, people are more likely to respond to stress with the impulse to “tend and befriend,” rather than to fight or flight.
Building a community of support, I heard from almost every mother I interviewed, was essential. Julie Miller-Phipps, the regional president for Southern California Kaiser, told me, “When you become a parent, it’s not doable to have everything fall on you. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t do it all myself, and I didn’t need to. Others couldn’t do it by themselves either, and I could help them. I built a network of people in my child’s life and in my work life who help me ebb and flow and be resilient.”
Building a community of support is step one. Step two is learning to deepen and sustain those relationships.
Or, as Amy Pressman, the President of Medallia, a 1,000-employee company she co-founded with her husband while raising three small children put it: “You can’t fire your kids, so you must grow and evolve as a person to adapt to their needs and wants. As a result, parenthood has increased my capacity to nurture the best in others, a skill I strive to integrate into our company.”
Motivated to succeed in our careers and at home, moms want to accomplish more in less time. Working with others makes this possible. In Feldman’s lab, they found that oxytocin positively impacted the regions of the brain associated with emotional processing, social understanding, and cognitive empathy. In other words, showing up for our kids makes us more emotionally intelligent. And this allows us to work more effectively with others. Which, according to game theorist Martin Nowak, is the most successful form of engagement. Nowak says Darwin was wrong: collaboration, not competition, is the key to survival. In the long run, cooperators, those who work well with others, are the ones most likely to win anywhere—the animal kingdom, in computer simulations, and even in corporate environments.
To sum up my research, working while mothering mandates that we develop broader, better relationships with others. And this lies at the heart of motherhood’s potential to positively transform our careers. Especially in the rapidly approaching workplace of the future. Because technology is ushering us into a new era of work.
Technology is changing the way we operate. We are moving away from the old model of leadership—which is hierarchical, directive, top-down, and transactional—to a type of leadership which is collective, distributed, bottom-up, facilitative, and emergent. Which is why my co-founder at TendLab, Janet Van Huysse, who served as the original VP of HR and then Diversity at Twitter, believes that “The companies who will succeed in the Twenty-first century will be the ones who encourage and foster the development of skills acquired in parenting.”