Are You a mother or a career woman? Must we choose?

Currently, in Estonia, the gender pay gap between men and women stands at 17%, one of the largest in Europe. Women particularly lose out on salary when they take maternity leave. Upon returning to work, they often find themselves sidelined from special projects and promotions, a phenomenon that could be termed a 'motherhood penalty'.

Ester Eomois, faculty at EBS and long-time leader of the EENA / BPW Estonia.


Research indicates that a mother can lose up to 5% of her salary per child compared to women without children. A recent American study shows that individuals seen as breadwinners – the primary earners – are often offered more leadership roles, various training and career opportunities, which also come with the possibility of a salary increase. Typically, the breadwinner, according to traditional gender roles, is male.

Studies discuss a so-called 'motherhood barrier', which confirms that women with young children at home or who are pregnant are perceived as less committed to work and are thought to have lost some of their competencies. This is not stated outright, but such women are not offered ambitious projects, promotions, or included in new initiatives. Leaders often do this because they want to be caring – they seemingly protect and shield these women from work-related stresses. However, this actually creates a situation where, if desired, the woman cannot progress professionally and misses out on career opportunities.


Childbearing is naturally designated to women, yet childbirth usually coincides with a period in a woman's life of significant career changes and rapid personal development. Since childcare remains predominantly a woman's "job", women often opt for flexible and part-time work, which leads to a 'flexibility stigma' – those working part-time are not promoted as equally as full-time employees. Moreover, it is known that one of the reasons for the gender pay gap is precisely this kind of flexible working.


Avoiding the motherhood penalty - how?

In my doctoral research, I have studied the career paths of Estonian female leaders and the factors that enable better integration of family and work roles. Here are some thoughts that have emerged from the interviews.

Women have the privilege of giving birth, but they should not see motherhood as their sole role. Even while at home with children, they should keep up with professional developments, stay connected with their company, attend trainings, and participate minimally in work-related activities. Being away for a year and a half could result in women falling behind and losing touch with their profession. Extended parental leave could turn into a 'baby trap', resulting in lower qualifications, lower salaries, and dissatisfaction upon returning to work.

  • Women should consciously train themselves to be bold and apply for better positions. Companies founded by women are often small. Yes, men make quicker and bolder decisions. Women are more self-critical, honing their skills to perfection, and a good opportunity may pass them by. Studies show no differences in leadership styles between men and women, but men are more willing to take risks. Risk-taking is not an innate or gender-specific trait but a skill that can and should be developed from childhood. Engaging in various activities, trying, experimenting. If a woman is working, it makes sense to do work that is enjoyable. Such work, where she can make decisions that allow her to realise her professional potential, develop professionally according to her goals and desires, and be fairly compensated for her work.
  • Successful women plan family activities well and take on responsibilities rationally. Many are inspired by the idea that it takes a village to raise a child − with the father, extended family, and a support network all participating. Going it alone leads to exhaustion. An encouraging finding from the study was that the child's father is an equal participant in the upbringing, not just a helper to the mother. And everyone benefits from this!
  • My doctoral research also revealed that female leaders are highly cherished and protected in their organisations, with no prejudices regarding their competence or decisiveness. However, in some cases, it was necessary to justify more to partners or clients that a woman at the top is just as competent and ready to make significant decisions.
  • Women leaders themselves admitted that they have worked (too) hard and looking back on their managerial careers, they would advise other women to work more collaboratively, support each other, chase perfection less, and make more use of their business contacts and colleagues' recommendations.

I hope that in the 21st century, no woman needs to make choices depending on her role – being professionally at the top with young children is practically impossible. And if a woman pursues a career, then planning a family should not be out of reach. Balanced family and work opportunities exist with wise decision-making and action – there is no need to choose between being a mother or a career woman if you wish to be both.