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  • Eleonora Voltolina

M for Mother, the scarlet letter that burdens women in their professional lives

Updated: Mar 19

The Italian newspaper Domani and The Why Wait Agenda are continuing their collaboration with a series of reports on the issue of choosing to have children. This fourth article was published in Italian in Domani in May 2023

Women often postpone the decision to have children or give up on it altogether because they would have to pay a steep price in their professional lives. Is it terrible to put it like that? Yes. But it is also very true. To put it more poetically: working women don an invisible cloak with a scarlet letter, a highly visible one – the M for mother. Or rather, U for uterus. Because that’s all it takes for discrimination to start: the possibility of motherhood.

«Since I was twenty-three, every interview I’ve had, they always asked me when I planned to have children», Marta reveals. Now, at 47, she is a marketing manager in a company in Emilia and has chosen not to have children. «So, not only is the question mean-spirited, but it’s often also pointless! Once, during an employment agency interview, I stood up and walked out, saying that I wasn’t interested in working for a company that was more concerned about my personal plans than my skills. The most painful part? The recruiter was a woman».

The data, in Italy much like in the rest of the world, confirms the scenario. Girls achieve higher grades than boys in high school; girls who go to university get good degrees and get them quickly. But discrimination starts as soon as they enter the workforce. Even during job interviews, despite the prohibition imposed by Italian law (the Codice delle pari opportunità, “Equality Code”). When women are hired, their salary is lower: five years after graduation, according to Almalaurea, theyearn about 20 percent less than their male peers. And then at a certain point, around the age of 31 and a half – which is the average age for Italian women to have their first child – some become mothers. They have few children, mind you. One point two five each (it may sound strange, but in statistics, even children are divisible). And keeping up with the pace in the world of work becomes even more difficult.

The impossible balance (but only for women) According to data from the Labour Inspectorate, in 2021, 31,500 people with children resigned in Italy citing the difficulty of balancing work and childcare as the reason. This difficulty often arises from issues related to care services, such as the absence of supportive relatives or the prohibitively high costs of nurseries and babysitters. They can also be attributed to work conditions that are difficult to reconcile with parental responsibilities or employers’ resistance to implementing flexible schedules. Out of the total number of resignations, a staggering 96 percent, or over 30,000 cases, involved working mothers, while only slightly over a thousand working fathers resigned for the same reasons.

The stereotype that women are naturally inclined towards caregiving burdens mothers with almost all the responsibility. Alessandra Minello, a professor of demography at the University of Padua, thoroughly and precisely dismantles the ‘myth of motherhood’ in her essay Non è un Paese per madri (“No Country for Mothers”, Laterza, currently available only in Italian). She envisions a future where men, liberated from gender stereotypes, can genuinely share caregiving and parenting tasks without feeling diminished, and consequently bring gender equality to the job market.

But reality is still archaic. If working mothers can’t figure out how to make it all fit together, the prevailing notion is that it’s their problem. They can give up their job. Or find a less demanding one, take part-time hours. After all, what’s the point of a woman having children if she doesn’t take care of them? Isn’t being a mother the most important job in the world?

No, it isn’t. Of course, being a mother is important, but since children are usually brought into the world by two people, the father’s role is equally important. The choice made by some individuals – mostly women – to not work and instead take care of the home and family is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is a free (and sustainable) one.

But why should those who need, want, and desire to work be considered less valid just because they have (or will potentially have) children at home? Those nine months of pregnancy, or the months of maternity leave or reduced hours for breastfeeding, are just a fraction of the over forty years of working life that each of faces us from our first job to retirement. Yet, they seem like an insurmountable mountain.

The thorny issue of maternity leave

If we look closely, mandatory maternity leave in Italy is funded for employed women by the state (at 80 percent of their salary for five months). However, companies are still responsible for paying contributions and sometimes covering the difference to get to 100 percent of the salary. Some companies complain about the difficulty of hiring a new person for just a few months as a “maternity replacement,” and it does happen that no replacement is arranged, causing a domino effect of discontent among colleagues. Alternatively, the replacement may permanently take over the role of the new mother, who upon returning finds herself “dethroned” and sometimes even pushed to quit. Smaller businesses, in particular, struggle with covering the cost of salaries of women on maternity leave in advance and having to wait for reimbursement from the Italian National Social Security Institute (Ines).

But in reality, it’s not even the leave that is daunting – it’s the subsequent 10-15 years, multiplied by all the (few) children brought into the world. For whom finding a place in a nursery may be difficult; they will get sick, be in the way when schools are closed, take part in school performances, and play football. They will require time and attention. Children whom the job market still considers solely the responsibility of mothers, assuming that only they should handle every unexpected situation: a one-sided and unilateral discrimination, disregarding shared parenthood.

Care work in companies

Sonia Malaspina, the HR manager at Danone in Italy, is very aware of this. She has initiated a policy to safeguard the careers of mothers in the company, which has yielded outstanding results: 100 percent return rate after maternity leave, reduced absenteeism, and minimal turnover. These factors can translate into economic benefits for the company, all resulting from a simple strategy: valuing motherhood instead of stigmatizing it.

After discussing the project in a TEDx talk, Malaspina, along with her colleague Marialaura Agosta, wrote the book Il congedo originale (Original Leave), published by Roi Edizioni in Italy with the subtitle “Why Companies Fear Motherhood.” This comprehensive 150-page book presents compelling data and, most importantly, provides a recipe that, supported by metrics, proves that motherhood is not a barrier to work. On the contrary.

An enormous wealth of skills

«We are fully aware that we are going up against centuries of culture, practices, and ways of thinking» admit Malaspina and Agosta in their book, «and the challenge may seem impossible». However, the stakes are too high: creating a work environment that doesn’t discourage parenthood. It’s not coincidental that the fertility rate at Danone is higher than the Italian average, and employees also have access to the online training platform Maam, “Maternity as a Master,” which allows the soft skills gained through caring for a child to be transformed into professional competencies. «Life and work are not in conflict at all: they generate skills and energy that mothers and fathers can carry from one sphere to another» explains founder Riccarda Zezza.

Getting rid of an employee when she has a child is a major blunder, as it means losing a tremendous amount of potential expertise. If companies fully embrace this viewpoint, we could start a real revolution in the world of work. Women would no longer see children as a hindrance to their professional lives. In fact, they might even have more children, and reduce the considerable gap between the number of children we have and the number of children we want.


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