Women ‘damned’ either way on taking maternity leave, study finds

EXETER, U.K. — Office attitudes toward women taking maternity leave stick new moms with a bleak pair of opinions: a woman taking time off is often perceived as being less dedicated to her job, while staying at work is considered by others as less dedication to being a parent, a new study finds.

Researchers from the University of Exeter say women are given negative judgments regardless of whether they do — or do not — take maternity leave to be with their newborn child. The study determined that coworkers offer their female peers a “damned either way” approach to taking maternity leave.

Lead author Dr. Thekla Morgenroth and her team of researchers analyzed the attitudes of 137 women and 157 men from the United Kingdom and United States toward a hypothetical female coworker. The majority of the study participants (70 percent) were working full-time and had no children (71 percent), with an average age of about 33 years.

The characteristics of the fictional woman remained the same throughout the hypothetical scenario, but the added factor of a newborn baby was included to analyze diverging reactions. Some participants were told the new mother took maternity leave, others were told she wasn’t taking it at all, and another group was given no indication of her decision either way.

Women taking maternity leave -- or not taking maternity leave -- are perceived negatively by coworkers, a new study finds.
Women taking maternity leave — or not taking maternity leave — are perceived negatively by coworkers, a new study finds.

The researchers found that the hypothetical woman was met with disapproval from participants about the decision — whether they were told she was taking leave, or told she would continue working.

“These effects occurred regardless of the respondent’s gender, age, parental status or nationality – which suggests these attitudes are universal and pervasive in our culture,” says Dr. Morgenroth, who led the study along with Professor Madeline Heilman of New York University, in a press release.

Dr. Morgenroth suggested the old “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” cliche was spot on in this type of scenario for women in the workplace. In this case, the co-worker was perceived as “significantly less competent” and “less worthy of rewards” if she did take maternity leave. However, if she did not, she was “more worthy” of rewards at work due to her decision to stay in the office after giving birth.

“This is a no-win situation for women,” says Morgenroth. “Our results show that perceptions of competence, whether in the work or family domain, were never boosted – but only impaired – by the maternity leave decision.”

The researchers say a woman’s decision to prioritize her home life over one’s professional life, or vice versa, stems from long-held stereotypes about women. Morgenroth tells USA Today that a societal assumption that a woman must be “caring, nurturing, and good mothers, but also bad at work-related things” is the negative consequence of these perceptions.

“It is important to have policies which allow women to balance work and family life, but it’s also important to understand people’s use of these policies may have unintended consequences,” she says.

The study, “Should I stay or should I go? Implications of maternity leave choice for perceptions of working mothers,” was published in the May 6 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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About the Author

Benjamin Fearnow

Mr. Fearnow has written for Newsweek, The Atlantic & CBS during his New York City-based journalism career. He discusses tech and social media topics on cable news networks.

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