Career Success after Children
Is There a Motherhood Penalty?
The author of The MomShift says it’s time to question our beliefs about working moms. Motherhood, she says, can be perfect preparation for your next big career shift.
In the course of writing The Momshift, I interviewed 500 women of different backgrounds, ages, careers and family situations. Not surprisingly, women continually referenced the need for supportive partners, flexibility and the importance of getting help with housework and childcare. But in addition to these well-known needs, there were some other interesting commonalities.
Knowing yourself was a big one. Your career’s evolution and success don’t happen in isolation from your personal decisions and choices. While on maternity leave, one of the women I interviewed used that time to figure out what she really wanted, as a mother, a wife, and a partner in an accounting firm. There’s something to that: deliberately taking the time to decide what you are doing and why you are doing it. So many people just slide into a career without taking the time to analyze their decisions and engage in that kind of introspection.
“Being a mother opens you up to possibility, and convinces you that you’re capable of much more than you thought.”
- Reva Seth, best-selling author of The MomShift
Another thing I noticed is that the people who are happiest in their work and family lives continually redefine their measures of success. Like many women, when I started in my career in Law, I entered a firm with an arbitrary group of people who all started our careers at the same time. The problem is, many of us benchmark our successes against this group.
The happiest people I interviewed accepted that ideas of success change. They told me that they are more successful now than they thought they’d ever be—although success looks different than they thought it would look. It’s important to be open to change: we’re all going to be working into our 70s, so the definition of success is going to keep changing.
Many of the women I profiled pursued entrepreneurial career paths, which is not a coincidence. In some ways, motherhood is compatible with entrepreneurship. I think many women are fighting against a model that hasn’t yet adjusted to working mothers; they’re at the forefront of finding new ways to work successfully, because the old ways were never set up for them.
Many women told me that motherhood pushed them to the next level of their careers. Some said they felt braver and more confident after having children: after tackling motherhood, taking the leap into something new became less daunting. There is also the ‘mompreneur’ phenomenon: after having kids, many women discover untapped market niches. However, I think the biggest element is that mothers are inspired to become entrepreneurs because they want more for themselves and their families.
Motherhood, ambition and drive
So often, we hear about children being a burden to a woman’s career. My biggest realization after having kids myself is that they’re a lot more fun than people tell you. It’s pretty great to have little people around, to get a different perspective.
Motherhood is completely different from any other job, so it opens you up to possibilities—whether it’s to write a book, start a business, or some other initiative. You realize that you can probably succeed at lots of other things, too. Having children gives you that grounded perspective. It’s not something we hear in the discussion about business and kids, but lots of women told me that kids made them more efficient.
These days, there are so many ways to have successful careers beyond the traditional, corporate path, and that’s where the trends are going. It’s more helpful to look at women who are having successful careers in all different kinds of ways, and that’s what I hope to do with this book: showcase the many ways we can achieve success.
Female success is corporate success
The World Economic Forum’s gender-gap report shows that countries with the strongest economies are those that have found ways to further women’s careers and keep mothers connected to the workforce; and in a survey of 215 Fortune-500 companies, the ones with a high ratio of women on the board or in senior positions were the strongest performers by every measure of profitability.
Advancing women is good news for corporations, since real diversity of experience is essential for companies to do well. Also, women tend to be the people who make the financial decisions in the home. They are the main audience for marketers, because they’re buying the majority of products. As a company, it just makes sense to have these people on your board. If you want to understand them, you need to have them present.
Reva Seth is the best-selling author of The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Having Children (Random House Canada, 2014) and the founder of The MomShift (themomshift.com), an online platform for professional women to share career advice. She serves on the board of the Trudeau Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Read her full story in The Rotman Management Magazine.