Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

When is the best “worst time” for a promotion?

By Eleonora Zavalloni ,Sales Enablement Manager, Permutive

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps people find and finesse their public voices

We talk a lot about gender equality in the workplace, about bridging the pay gap and celebrating women who made it to the C-suite. We don’t hear as often, if ever, stories of promotions and career changes for young mothers. Why is that? Because the maternal wall bias is alive and kicking.

Maternal wall bias is probably one of the most rooted gender stereotypes. It consists of the assumption that mothers are less committed to their work, do not perform as well and as a consequence they find themselves discriminated against in the workplace. 

Whilst researching this article, I was in complete shock. 

I simply couldn’t find any studies on career promotions during maternity leave. Where were the Forbes and HBR articles I was looking for? Was there a glitch in Google search? 

Working mothers deal daily with incorrect assumptions they are not dedicated enough, available, or performing well compared to men or childless peers. According to the Independent women are ⅔ more likely than men to be overlooked for promotion after having a child. It often feels like you have to choose between being a good mother and having a career in the corporate world. How is that fair? 

The Pandemic has done nothing but exacerbated the binary choices women have to make: according to a McKinsey study, during 2020 one in three mothers of young children had to choose to leave the workforce to dedicate themselves to full-time childcare. In southern European cultures the maternal wall bias is a shocking reality. In Italy, my home country, we hit the negative record for the continent in 2021 with 57% of mothers out of the workforce, according to Eurostat. Leaving aside the obvious gaps that still exist in welfare and social policies around parental leave in many countries, I often wonder what we can do to tear down the maternal wall.

When I think about my own career path, I’m disappointed by how long it took to finally get promoted into a new role. Although my 10 years’ Executive Assistant career opened up for me many opportunities: moving from Europe to Asia, working with multiple cultures, moving back to Europe, learning new languages and skills and switching industries more than once, I always knew I wanted to do more. It’s just I didn’t know what.

When I turned 35, my husband and I decided we wanted to start a family. And poof! I found my purpose, my ikigai, as I learned about the role that corresponded best with my skills and interests. Transitioning to Sales Enablement – in a nutshell, our job is setting sales and go-to-market teams up for success – didn’t happen overnight and I had to prove I was a good fit by double-hatting between two roles for a while. Until the day I announced my pregnancy and my manager asked me if I wanted a full transition into the new position after maternity leave.

Against all odds I was promoted while pregnant, with twins, during the Pandemic. 

Pregnancy was a rollercoaster, and the first weeks as a new parent at times tougher. But during that time I never lost sight of my promotion and the new challenge. Nap times were spent reading and listening to podcasts to prepare for my new role. My manager heard from me regularly. Nothing could stop me.

I’m sure there are many other working mums like me out there, who fought the prejudice which says you can’t be the best mother and professional at the same time. 

I want to confirm that it is bullshit. 

There is so much we can do to improve the perception of young mothers in the workplace and it starts by celebrating each success and proving that yes, we have probably less time than our childless peers, but we’ve learnt to skim to the essentials and focus on work that matters. We are committed because we want to show we’re worth it. We will be accountable because we are responsible for little human beings. And we will do all of that with elegance and poise. Fundamentally, we will do the job, because we’re already running a small business, a family.
So how can we fight maternal wall bias? A starting point is for those women who’ve made it to the C-suite to embrace their vulnerability and share the struggles with the maternal wall bias they had to fight to get to the top. Let’s use the power of social networks to stop this anachronistic bias, undermining our careers and our society. Let’s be vocal about it and be heard by governments and policymakers.