Hanging by a Thread: Why Working Mothers Decline Promotions

I was chatting to a young working mother recently and her overwhelm was palpable. She had passed up on a promotion because she was only hanging onto her sanity by her finger nails and couldn’t possibly see how taking the promotion was not going to push her over the edge.


My heart went out to her because I completely got the overwhelm. Incidentally, we were having this conversation in the presence of her husband who was keen to have a second child and he was somewhat baffled as to why she was not completely enamoured with the idea. Hmmn, let me think……..


The fact is, the working world can be a pretty hostile environment for working mothers. It doesn’t mean to be. There are loads of wellbeing initiatives these days and HR policies which in theory should make it less hostile. Unfortunately the statistics stubbornly stay the same when it comes to the female talent pipeline. At the top, in the C-Suite, you have less than 30% of women across all industries.


The women, particularly those with caring responsibilities like children and elderly parents, just get worn out and drop out. They don’t take the promotion, they stagnate or simply just choose to employ their energies outside the workplace.


My particular bug bear is when they don’t take the promotion because they think they can’t cope and it is better to stagnate. Anyone that I have coached will tell you that I always, always, advise them to take the promotion. To me it is the equivalent of crashing your car because you’re a bad driver and changing your car rather than learning to be a better driver. Chances are, you will crash the car again because the car was never the problem. 


There are serious skills required to combine the world of work and raising a family if you are a woman. However, no one is pulling young women aside and telling them to swat up on these skills. I remember coming home with my first child and wishing the ‘real’ parents would turn up and show me what to do. Unfortunately they never did and I had to muddle through and make it up as I went along.


Then I had to turn up at work after my maternity leave and pretend a whole new human being was not dependent on me and that everything was just as it was, before I fell pregnant. The truth was, my body had changed. My emotions had changed. My relationship had changed. Dare I say, My priorities had changed. I needed new skills and a change management manual to help me navigate this change. Sometimes, I genuinely did not know which way was up.


But still, I had to turn up and go toe to toe with the men in the workplace who, most of the time if they had kids, could successfully delegate most of the disruption to their partners and carry on business as usual.


So believe you me when I say, I get it when women choose to pass up on the promotion or leave the workplace altogether. But, it is not the smart thing to do if you care about your career. Plus you only need to beef up on three main skills to help you stay on top of everything. The are:


  1. Time Management
  2. Communication
  3. Boundaries


You see, before kids, you didn’t have to be a Ninja at any of the above, you could even be bad at them and still get by. But when the kids come along, you will not get away with sloppy time management and not communicating where your stop signs are when it comes to your boundaries. 


For starters, the nursery will start charging you if you are not there on time to pick up the kids. 


Your boss and colleagues will start giving you the side eye when you keep rocking up late in the mornings.


You will start feeling incompetent because you can’t stay awake in meetings because little Tommy is teething and you were up half the night and can’t remember the name of the client you are making the presentation to.


When that happens, you might be tempted to pass up on the promotion. Don’t do it. The promotion keeps you in control, and if you are smart, it will force you to upskill. That’s right, get the time management, communication and boundary enforcing skills that you need and while you are at it, why not learn to delegate like your life depends on it because at this point, it does.