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This may be the way to cancel the ‘motherhood penalty’ and develop leaders

Neuroscience shows that new parents undergo changes in their brains that allow them to be more present, empathize with others, and collaborate more effectively—All important leadership skills.

This may be the way to cancel the ‘motherhood penalty’ and develop leaders
[Photo: d3sign/Getty Images]

Angela Passarelli was expecting the diaper changes, the late-night feedings and the sleeplessness. But she was not expecting that it would all make her a more effective leader.  

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Becoming a mother “helped me tune into other people’s nonverbal cues,” Passarelli, the director of research at the Institute of Coaching at McLean/Harvard Medical School and an associate professor of management at the College of Charleston, told me over Zoom. “When you have this tiny baby who can’t communicate, you really have to pay attention to patterns and nonverbal signals,” a skill she said translates to how you show up at work. 

Motherhood also helped her put work in perspective. Suddenly, it was no longer the primary place where she could feel a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment. This change, she told me, was freeing. It meant she was willing to take more risks, “and to stand up more for what I thought was right.”   

Neuroscience research bears out Passarelli’s experience, suggesting that new parents undergo changes in their brain that allow them to be more present, to empathize with others, to collaborate more effectively, and even to respond to stress in a more adaptive way

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Unfortunately, many employers don’t associate “new mother” with “leadership potential.” Instead, they tend to connect motherhood with a depreciation in the skills required to be an effective leader. This harmful misperception contributes to one of the most stubbornly consistent equality problems in the workplace today, what’s known as the motherhood penalty: When women take leave to care for a new child, they are consequently less likely to be promoted into a leadership role, to get a raise, to receive stretch assignments, and the list goes on. This discriminatory penalty is a central contributor to the still-cavernous gender gap we see in senior leadership, and one that’s even bigger for women of color.

While a generous parental leave policy is important, it’s also an insufficient approach to address the motherhood penalty for two reasons: it doesn’t help new mothers, or their managers, navigate the transition in and out of the workplace. And it does little to change the narrative around parenting and leadership, which is critical to driving overall workplace culture change. This gap in support hurts both new mothers and employers, who may be losing talented employees because they aren’t intentionally championing them during a transformative period. 

Enter into this bleak landscape the emerging research about the role that coaching can play in supporting new mothers through this transitional period. Over the past decade, researchers have started to study the impact that maternal coaching has on women’s desire to stay in the workplace after they return from maternity leave. Though study sizes are generally small and insights are mostly qualitative, initial findings suggest that this kind of intervention, in the context of a supportive organizational environment, can powerfully influence new mothers’ career decisions and experiences before, during and after they welcome a new child. 

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Now, Passarelli and her research partner, Spela Trefalt, an associate professor and Diane K. Trust Chair in Leadership Development at Simmons University, are poised to be the next contributors to this nascent literature. Their research, which has been presented at academic conferences (Academy of Management and IOC’s Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare) and is currently under review, examines the role coaching can play not just to keep mothers in the workplace, but to give them the support they need to stay in their organization’s leadership pipeline and unlock the growth potential of being a new parent.

When it comes to supporting mothers, organizations tend to focus on the challenges that spring up after a child is born. But a great coaching program should “start as soon as the pregnancy begins,” says Passarelli. “That’s when the identity shift happens, that’s when [women] begin to face major inequities at work because of the stigmatized nature of women’s pregnant bodies.” 

Passarelli and Trefalt also found that many of the organizations offering this kind of coaching provide it to both women and their managers. For instance, a coach could help a manager avoid “benevolent” sexism when attempting to support a new mother, behaviors that are well-intentioned, but have sexist undertones. This could be a manager deciding unilaterally not to give a pregnant woman a stretch assignment (assuming it would be too stressful for her), instead of talking it through with her first. 

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Other researchers point to managers, and having overall organizational support, as crucial to the effectiveness of any coaching program. “You can go to as many coaching sessions as you want, if you don’t have a supportive line manager then you are going to struggle,” said a new mother who had received coaching in one South Africa-based study

Another insight from Passarelli and Trefalt’s research: Coaching programs were more likely to be used by women when employers framed them as leadership development opportunities. Making the link between new mothers and enhanced leadership capabilities more explicit could also contribute to a broader mindset shift: that motherhood represents a step forward along a leadership path.  

This mindset shift is already happening, but perhaps not fast enough. “It’s time for us to recognize that the skills developed while parenting – such as adaptability and resilience, and the ability to have deeper, more authentic relationships with one another – are the skills we all need to develop, regardless of whether we ever have kids,” writes Amy Henderson in her book Tending

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Elizabeth Weingarten is head of Behavioral Insights at Torch.


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