The Blog

The Mummy Track - A Man-Made Trap

This is the Mummy Track. A subtle quirk of the workplace which somehow manages to circumvent equal employment legislation and allows pregnant women and mothers to be shamefully discriminated against.

Women who are successful in their careers and who have or want to have a family, are understandably afraid of being shoved onto the 'Mummy Track'.

For anyone who hasn't heard of the term, it describes the plateauing career trajectory of a woman once she becomes a mother. It is usually demonstrated by her chances of progression disappearing, her job losing some responsibilities, her being overlooked for interesting projects, or assumptions made, without consulting her, about what she is willing and not willing to do when it comes to additional travel or working extra hours.

In short, her status as a mother is deemed to negate her usefulness as an employee. She is treated as an embarrassment - a hanger-on who can't technically be fired but who has already lost her dignity and everyone is hoping will just leave quietly. Someone to pat on the head and give menial tasks to in order to keep them busy (but nothing too important in case she messes it up because of her 'baby brain'.)

This may sound like an exaggeration, but I bet there are plenty of working mothers who feel exactly like this: who came back to work after maternity leave, raring to go, but found their new combination of skills and experience was neither appreciated nor even welcomed.

This is the Mummy Track. A subtle quirk of the workplace which somehow manages to circumvent equal employment legislation and allows pregnant women and mothers to be shamefully discriminated against.

And it exists because some men feel threatened by women. It's sexism, pure and simple.

I heard a story of a woman, a mum, who didn't get a promotion even though she was clearly the best candidate for the job. They gave it to a man instead because their belief was that the mum would be less reliable and not able to give her all to the job. The person who got the job did it fine for a few months, then got offered another job elsewhere. With no particular loyalty and nothing really invested in it, he left. And the mum? She was so incensed at being passed over in the first place that she too found something else and moved on. The company was left with no one in that role and a big recruitment and training bill to replace it. Not to mention having lost an excellent employee in the process.

You could argue that the mum could have got the job and she too may have left after just a few months. Sure she could. The danger of employees leaving applies equally to everyone. Even throughout the recession, good employees have been able to advance their careers by moving jobs.

Every employee is a risk in some way, so why did they discriminate against the mum in this instance? Why did they assume that she would not have given her all to the job? What are the reasons that employers use to justify the Mummy Track to themselves?

Perhaps it's the sick child thing. Mums are always taking time off to care for their sick children. It's the blight of the British workforce. How many working days must be lost each year by mums taking sick leave to snuggle up on the sofa with their offspring?

I would hazard a guess that it's roughly similar to the amount of time taken off by employees who are sick themselves. So there's a shocker - men and women who aren't mums might take time off too. Maybe a morning lost to a hangover or several days with a legitimate bout of the flu - everyone is susceptible. (And the one time I took a 'sick day' to care for my son I was asked to take it as annual leave when I got back, so there we go, everyone's a winner.)

Then it could be the leaving early thing. Because mums are such bad employees that they're always sloping off early to collect the kids from nursery. And it's funny because I've often found that the last hour of the day - the one where everyone is tired and fed up and clock watching - is by far the most productive... Fancy the mum employee missing out on that hive of activity. (Especially as she'll probably feel so guilty about it that she'll stay up late working and answering emails after the kids are in bed, just to make doubly sure that she's seen to be giving the job her absolute all.)

Well then it must be the working part time thing. Because anyone who works part time can't possibly hold down a senior position and do a good job. Quantity of hours is the objective, and clearly quality of work doesn't even come into it. (Quantity over quality being, of course, a distinctly masculine aspiration...)

I've heard people say that senior level managerial jobs can't be done part time. If the manager is not in one or two days a week, then how on earth can people around her possibly do their jobs? Well, two things. Firstly, if she's not micro-managing and she's empowered her staff to do their work without asking her advice or opinion every 5 minutes then her unavailability shouldn't matter - especially if it's regular and predictable. And secondly, I've never yet come across a senior manager, of any gender, who was always available. Between meetings and other things, being 'away from their desk' was more normal than being at it. Who cares if they're away in a meeting, or picking their children up from the childminder - being a good senior employee is not about how many hours you're in your chair - it's about how well you lead your team. Working part time shouldn't be a barrier to achieving this aim.

Of course, we can't forget the holy grail of flexible working - the 'work' from home thing. Because everyone assumes that people who work from home actually watch Jeremy Kyle in their pyjamas and just respond to emails to make it look like they're working. On the contrary, I found that my productivity soared to levels I could never achieve in an office yapping about Downton Abbey or being dragged into meetings every half an hour. Because that really ate into what little concentration I was able to muster under those fluorescent lights, whirring (or more often, broken) air con, and constant interruptions for coffee breaks, leaving/birthday presentations, and colleagues needing to 'ask a quick question'.

None of these factors negatively impact the employer and they cannot justify obstructing a woman's career path. Women who have children choose to come to work when they could be at home with their children. They want their job to be meaningful and challenging. They don't want to settle for the Mummy Track, and if they're forced onto it they're likely to become exactly the kind of uncommitted employee that every employer is trying to avoid.

The Mummy Track benefits no one, except perhaps those men who are afraid of having women at the top...