What's Holding Moms Back?

Mom is a hard word in business. I know firsthand that women can be both productive professionals and happy parents. It’s not that difficult. Still, it requires a little rethinking of the old-fashioned, male-dominated leadership hierarchy in most businesses, especially in marketing and advertising.

Why? Women drive an estimated 70 -80% of consumer spending through purchase power and influence. In fact, 50% of products marketed to men are actually purchased by women. Globally, women control $20 trillion in annual spending. In the next five years, that figure is expected to rise to $30 trillion.

So how can there be so few women, in general, and mothers, in particular, actually devising the strategies to engage mom, or the content to enthrall her and even far fewer in corporate leadership roles?

Consider that women have been graduating from colleges at a greater rate than men for the last 20 years and are now starting to overtake men in graduate degrees. Next, imagine the day a woman gives birth. At that moment, consciously or not, she is forced to face the question to leave or not to leave the work force. What a question. And if she leaves, what a terrible waste of education and talent.



Why would she consider leaving? Inadequate parental leave, and in addition, peer judgment pressuring her either to not take much leave for the sake of her job or to leave for the sake of the children.

I recently spoke with Holly Gordon, the founder of Girl Rising, who told me this conversation is a “timely and vital call-to-action to keep mothers in the workforce — and in leadership positions — especially in culture-defining sectors like advertising, marketing and media. Too many women start promising careers but leave when they have children, not because they want to, but because traditional workforce structures don’t work. The system has to change.”

In a recent article on this particular work place bias, Patricia Cohen of The New York Times wrote, "... Researchers have repeatedly found ample evidence of discrimination against mothers in the hiring process and the workplace."

Now's the time for change as the new economy needs new ideas and new leadership. A report by the Pew Research Center shows that the majority of Americans think women are just as capable as men of being good political and business leaders. Women are perceived as indistinguishable from their male peers when it comes to leadership qualities such as intelligence and capacity for innovation. When it comes to other qualities—honesty, fairness, compassion and willingness to compromise—many Americans actually judge women as superior.

It’s tempting to read the report as a sign of progress. After all, the 114th Congress includes a record number of women (104) serving in the House and Senate. On the corporate front, 26 women now lead as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, up from zero in 1995. But, in fact, the 104 congresswomen only make up 19% of Congress and the female CEOs represent just 5% of all Fortune 500 CEOs.

As an industry that prides itself on understanding and shaping our culture, our numbers are creeping along, but they’re still staggeringly low, and they are low because there is a talent leak.

Lisen Stromberg, consultant and COO of the 3% Movement, said: "At the base, we see lots of women, there is no pipeline issue. But we have a leaky pipeline. When we get to the top there are very few women with children. And those with children tend to have stay-at-home husbands. So something's happening in that frozen middle where we are losing women and the question is why?"

One reason is we’ve all just settled for a system that makes it difficult to be a parent and a professional in advertising, in journalism, or in any profession for that matter. So when faced with being a parent, many mothers choose motherhood over careers. But they should not have to choose.

Mothers are an extraordinary resource for business. I'm originally from Sweden, which has long been a laboratory for a better workplace balance. The government, together with business leaders and corporations, years ago developed a system where parents receive more than a year of paid leave upon the birth of a child, and both parents take it.

This is good for the children, good for parents, good for productivity, and good for business.

The systems and structures of the past are not the systems and structures of the future. They are out of date. We’ve had 60 years of a work-week that leads to lower productivity, more sick days and, moreover, few women in leadership positions. It’s time for a new discussion in all industries about work and moms in the workplace.

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