Facebook Facebook icon Twitter Twitter icon LinkedIn LinkedIn icon Email
maternal wall to dismantle


Dismantling the maternal wall brick by brick

Published 8 March 2022 in Purpose • 7 min read

Stereotypes and systems are stopping women from progressing in their careers

The pervasive stereotype of women as caregivers creates a “maternal wall” in the workplace – a bias based on the belief that women with children and caregiving responsibilities are less committed to their careers. There are several problems with this thinking: it perpetuates gender assumptions that associate caregiving with women; it equates a belief that full time work is an indicator of full commitment; and it assumes a career and caregiving are and should be mutually exclusive, with careers requiring single-minded commitment and on-call availability, and caregiving requiring devotion to family over work.

These beliefs have many consequences. Research on stereotyping in the workplace shows that working mothers are more likely to be considered housewives than businesswomen, perpetuating the myth that women should be with their children. Other studies show that women with no children were 37% more likely to be recommended for interview than female applicants with children. Attitudes in the workplace sustain this bias with working mothers often feeling (and are made to feel) guilty for their family responsibilities, while attitudes in society cause working mothers to feel (or be made to feel) guilty for not being sufficiently at home.

It’s not that women are less committed. Rather socially accepted norms and a lack of access to adequate childcare make it difficult for many women to combine work and family. At the same time, the system obliges men to focus on work at the exclusion of caregiving. To address the maternal wall, it is important to examine how biases and systems combine to constrain choice.

The number of women affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is indisputable and has exacerbated these biases. Women shouldered even more responsibility for their household and family members, drawing attention to the inadequate care arrangements that prevent them from living a joint commitment to both work and home. The Women in the Workplace report showed one in four women are considering downsizing or leaving the workforce as they struggle to juggle family and work commitments. And a 2021 survey by MetLife in the US found that half of all women say that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their career

Invisible work vs greedy work

 With lockdowns closing schools and childcare facilities, the par-excellence caregiver has been called upon to take the place of these services at home. This is not a negligible undertaking. Full-time home care involves up to 98 hours per week of what has been termed the invisible job of parenting and managing a home. In 2018, estimated the value of a mother’s role to be $178,201 per year in the US, taking into account that a mother often performs the role of caregiver, housekeeper, educator, therapist, administrator, and so on. A lack of policies and systemic support for redistributing this invisible work is hampering the advancement of gender equality at work.

Even couples who would like to share the responsibilities of caregiving and career may struggle to do so due to the expectations of what Claudia Goldin terms “greedy work” –demanding and inflexible hours, exacerbated, pre-COVID-19, by commuting and presenteeism. This greedy work is rewarded at premium rates. When couples have children or other caregiving responsibilities, they maybe forced to choose between higher income and longer hours or greater flexibility and lower pay. In these situations, many couples make financially savvy choices by maintaining at least one greedy job.

However, this maintains the Maternal Wall as, according to Goldin, it is still rare for men to sacrifice their high-paying greedy jobs for their partner’s. The price of flexibility is high not only in terms of the negative stereotypes that prevail for part-time workers, which equates part-time hours with a lack of commitment, but also in terms of reduced earnings in the immediate and longer term and the “motherhood penalty” that might accrue from time out from the workforce.

If parents are to avoid having to trade their careers for caregiving roles, states must provide adequate caregiving services for both pre-school age children and the elderly
If parents are to avoid having to trade their careers for caregiving roles, states must provide adequate caregiving services for both pre-school age children and the elderly.

The motherhood penalty in STEM

 While initiatives like Girls in Science and the L’Oréal-UNESCO foundation For Women in Science have sought to increase the number of women and girls studying and working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) fields, they remain underrepresented, particularly in physics, maths, and computing, which are driving digital transformation. In part this is due to ingrained bias in the education system about teaching girls STEM subjects, for which there is ample anecdotal evidence. Take the case of a female university graduate in Life Sciences at ETH in Switzerland. Based on her experience in high school as one of only three girls in a class of 24 studying maths and physics, she says, “Even today, science and maths are still seen as male subjects.”

The issue is similar for women pursuing careers in fields as diverse as law, medicine, business, and C-suite executive roles.

To address the detrimental effects of the maternal wall, individuals, communities, and companies need to #BreakTheBias. This starts at home and at school where the education system has a responsibility to discuss and challenge gender roles. Yet beyond bias, there are systemic issues that need attention. The often-quoted African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”,  emphasizes that it takes a whole community to nurture new generations and also suggests that, in addition to women and men, the community and the working environment must adapt certain priorities.

 If parents are to avoid having to trade their careers for caregiving roles, states must provide adequate caregiving services for both pre-school age children and the elderly. The provision of such services is currently uneven across communities, reflecting not only income constraints but also cultural beliefs and “motherhood myths”. In the EU, research shows that almost half (47%) the children aged three or younger were cared for exclusively by their parents in 2019. This unequal division of caregiving tasks factor can explain lower female employment levels compared to that of men. In EU  member states the number of children cared for exclusively by a parent ranges from 21% in the Netherlands, 23% in Portugal and 30% in Luxembourg to 64% in Latvia and 70% in Bulgaria.

Companies also have three important means to address the issue of the maternal wall.

Raise awareness of bias

 Training to address stereotypes and expectations about women’s assumed responsibilities raises awareness of bias. If COVID-19 has a silver lining, it is that the world has proved its capability to work from home with flexible schedules. This helps to debunk the presenteeism bias that associates commitment with presence in the office.

Implement inclusive parental leave policies

Firms should also normalize inclusive policies and practices for dealing with leaves of absence. Some organizations like Novartis provide 14 weeks of parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child, recognizing that becoming a parent is a life-changing moment for men and women. Providing choice to couples to decide how to use parental leave – rather than assume the default norm of maternity leave – helps companies retain staff and creates more inclusive cultures. In addition, corporations can find ways to quickly reintegrate women (and men) returning from parental leave to the working environment to facilitate the sense of inclusion.

Support the provision of childcare

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, companies can support the provision, directly or indirectly, of childcare. This might take the form of purchasing places in childcare facilities close to their premises and offering special rates to parents. Some companies, like Dell, offer a network of childcare centres. Intel offers financial assistance between $75 and $300 per month for caregiving costs. Recognising parents’ need for flexibility, KPMG has quadrupled the number of days for back-up care as well as providing discounted access to academic support and tutoring. LinkedIn’s Family First program covers the lifecycle of being a family from pregnancy to college planning. The program includes daycare support, $2,000 annually towards childcare expenses and the same amount toward the cost of pet care. The program supports parents of children with learning or developmental disabilities, and provides advice on how to plan for college fees and admissions. Beyond childcare and pet care, the program also provides paid care for up to six weeks for an ill family member. Progressive organisations like these recognize that careers and caregiving exist side by side and support employees to manage both aspects of their lives – personal and professional.

The maternal wall is built, brick by brick, by stereotypes and expectations about gender roles and cemented by practices and structures that keep these bricks in place. To dismantle it, we need to address the individual stereotypes as well as the systemic foundations. Organizations can create more inclusive environments by adopting family-friendly policies and normalizing the assumption that both men and women can adopt caregiving roles and pursue careers if they choose.



Heather Cairns-Lee

Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication

Heather Cairns-Lee is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication at IMD. She is a member of IMD’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Council and an experienced executive coach. She works to develop reflective and responsible leaders and caring inclusive cultures in organizations and society.



Christos Cabolis

Christos Cabolis

Chief Economist at the IMD World Competitiveness Center

Christos Cabolis is the IMD World Competitiveness Center’s Chief Economist and Head of Operations and Adjunct Professor of Economics and Competitiveness at IMD. His research focuses on competitiveness in its broadest sense, such as the challenges inherent to ESG and the need to respect citizens’ privacy in an increasingly digitalized world.


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

Log in or register to enjoy the full experience

Explore first person business intelligence from top minds curated for a global executive audience