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Talking Point: The penalty for motherhood in the workplace

Ellie House
From discrimination in the workplace to the staggering cost of childcare, working mums tell us what needs to change. Image: Shutterstock.
From discrimination in the workplace to the staggering cost of childcare, working mums tell us what needs to change. Image: Shutterstock.

When I was pregnant with my son, I naively thought I would return to work with ease.

I had no idea of the price I would pay for the motherhood penalty, or that by falling pregnant I was already set up to fail.

Not by my employer, but by a society which does not invest in early years childcare, or make it financially worthwhile to return to work.

The role of the stay-at-home parent is also deeply undervalued, with women pitted against each other for making different choices.

Every year in the UK, 54,000 women lose their job simply for getting pregnant and 390,000 working mums experience negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work.

The UK has recently taken first place as having the most expensive childcare system in the world.

This isn’t just about the cost of childcare, nursery waiting lists or missing out on promotion.

This is about deeply entrenched attitudes to working mums.

Because when do we ever say the phrase, working dad?

I’ve interviewed two brilliant women, who also happen to have children, and found out about their experiences and the changes they want to see happen.

Alex White

Alex White is currently pregnant with her second child, and also has a son who was born two weeks prior to the UK going into lockdown.

She is the global marketing manager for Swire services, and delivered a talk at TedX Aberdeen called The Career Mother Gear.

Alex Whyte on stage delivering her TedX talk on motherhood in the workplace. Image: Michal Wachucik, Abermedia.

This is what she had to say.

“The initial response to my first pregnancy was really good, but that slowly trickled away.

“People stopped talking to me about my future; it was all about me going off, not about me coming back.

“That isn’t discriminatory in nature, but it gives this sense of dread.

“Am I protected?

“A colleague made a flippant remark by saying ‘I thought you were really career driven.’

“People have told me I’m really brave for doing the TedX talk and I get what they mean, but that also broke my heart.

“I was always told there was lots of opportunities, my career path was rocketing and there was lots of plans for me.

“These conversations just died when I got pregnant, I felt it almost immediately.

“You become the weather, people just ask how you’re feeling.

“I had to fight for opportunities, and all the hard work I had already done I had to do again.

“It felt like I had to prove myself again, that I was committed.

Alex Whyte believes that change can happen by talking about experiences, and challenging the language used surrounding working parents. Image: Michal Wachucik, Abermedia.

“I cannot help but feel I am being held back because I have chosen to have children.

“But no one says that directly, you have to shout and raise your hand.

“You can even have bias against yourself and not go for opportunities.

“There is no well-paid paternity leave, so there is no choice but for woman to go off work.

“There’s this rhetoric that women choose to take the time off, but there isn’t any choice in the first place.

“Someone once said to me, why did you have kids if you wanted to have a career?

“We never ask men that.

“I travel a lot for work and people always ask who is looking after my son.

“I have at least four male colleagues who are also parents but they’re never asked that question.

“I felt like I had to be at work long enough before having my second child, so no one could question my commitment.

Alex believes having children has impacted on her success in the workplace. Image: Shutterstock.

“Of course, when I announced I was pregnant again, it was back to square one.

“Written off immediately by individuals.

“It’s the social conditioning of how we see women, how we see gender roles.

“This is 2022, I would love to see people challenging that.”

Sammy MacDonald

Sammy MacDonald is an award-winning name in the beauty industry.

From running numerous salons to training the next generation, she juggles her impressive career with three children.

She believes discrimination is still rife, but change is coming.

Sammy MacDonald runs numerous salons across the city, and believes change is slowly coming for mothers in the workplace.

“I work away quite a lot with my job at events like London Fashion Week, and people have said to me ‘I cannot believe you leave your children for that long’.

“Yet nobody says a thing when a man goes to work offshore.

“People have always commented on how much I work.

Sammy MacDonald has been questioned over her career versus motherhood. Image: Shutterstock.

“My kids would say, why can’t you be like so and so’s mum.

“And I’d reply, I can easily stop work; but we’d have to move house, no holidays and no activities.

“My husband is very hands on, but even now if something happens with one of the children, I am predominately the parent who steps in.

“I feel that society is moving forward, and shared parenthood will be more common for the next generation.

“But with nine months maternity leave for women, and only two weeks paternity for men, that sets us up to fail.

“It still gives men that next step up the ladder.”

Raising the next generation

Recent ONS data shows that for the first time in decades the number of women leaving the workforce to look after family has increased.

For women aged between 25-34 years old, it has increased by 12.6% in the last year.

Mothers around the world have protested in the face of rising childcare costs and discrimination. Image:  Shutterstock.

The charity, Pregnant Then Screwed, was founded in 2015, and supports tens of thousands of women each year.

It was founded by Joeli Brearley, who was sacked from her job by voicemail two days after she told her employer she was pregnant.

Women encounter a multitude of barriers when trying to have children and a career, including being reliant on expensive childcare and a lack of access to good-quality flexible working.

To access support and find out more, visit or phone 0161 2229879.