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The Price of Motherhood: Examining the True Cost of Unsupportive Workplace Cultures

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The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a U.S. labor law that provides eligible employees with job-protected, unpaid leave for qualified family and medical reasons (U.S. Department of Labor, 2023). FMLA is a crucial piece of legislation that helps employees balance work and family responsibilities during challenging times. It provides a safety net for those facing significant life events while ensuring job protection and continuation of health benefits. However, a significant limitation of FMLA is that it is unpaid, and many employees cannot afford to take time off without pay (Bryant, 2020). Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not covered, and employees must meet specific eligibility criteria, including a minimum number of hours worked (U.S. Department of Labor, 2023).

The intersection of work and family roles often creates challenges for women during pregnancy, and many women find themselves under significant pressure to return to work shortly after childbirth. This can have profound implications for women’s physical and emotional well-being, as well as hinder their ability to establish a strong bond with their newborn (Bryant, 2020). Most women continue to work throughout and after their pregnancies (Scherer, 2021). Therefore, understanding the dynamics and challenges these working mothers face is imperative for crafting policies that address the needs arising from the competing demands of work and family life.

The issues surrounding work-family conflict and paid parental leave extend beyond the immediate concerns of individuals who are pregnant or actively raising children. These matters are relevant to all Americans as they encapsulate broader societal implications. Work-family conflict is not confined to parenthood. It extends to individuals navigating the complexities of caring for aging parents, supporting spouses through health challenges, or maintaining personal well-being in the face of demanding professional commitments. The integration of work and family responsibilities is a universal challenge that individuals face at different life stages. Recognizing the importance of work-family balance and advocating for comprehensive paid parental leave policies reflects a commitment to the overall well-being of the workforce.

Recently, the enactment of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which President Biden signed into law on December 29, 2022, represents a significant stride in demonstrating support for working parents (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2023). This legislation was designed to ensure that pregnant employees receive reasonable workplace accommodations, addressing the unique challenges they may face during their pregnancies and after childbirth (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2023). By emphasizing fairness and equal treatment, the PWFA seeks to establish a framework that not only safeguards the well-being of pregnant workers but also contributes to fostering a more inclusive and supportive work environment for parents navigating the complexities of career and family responsibilities (Carrazana, 2023).

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) sought to build upon existing laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), to address the specific needs of pregnant employees (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2023). It requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to qualified employees or applicants facing limitations connected to, influenced by, or stemming from pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions unless such accommodations impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business operations (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2023). Reasonable accommodations are designed to ensure equal employment opportunities and prevent discrimination based on pregnancy-related factors. Examples of reasonable accommodations under the PWFA may include adjusting the employee’s work hours to accommodate medical appointments, fatigue, or other pregnancy-related needs; adapting or temporarily modifying specific job tasks to accommodate physical limitations or restrictions; assigning the employee to alternative duties that are less physically demanding; allowing additional breaks or rest periods; allowing the employee to work remotely or telecommute when feasible; and granting temporary leave for medical appointments, recovery after childbirth, or other pregnancy-related reasons.

While the PWFA is a step in the right direction for helping parents balance work and family life, the culture within a workplace plays a significant role in whether parents utilize these types of policies (Petts, Mize, and Kaufman, 2021). While implementing policies to assist working parents is crucial, their effectiveness is diminished if workplace culture does not enable employees to take advantage of their allocated time. For example, a company may introduce a flexible work hours policy to support working parents. However, if the prevailing workplace culture discourages employees from taking advantage of flexible hours or if there’s a stigma associated with utilizing parental leave, the policy’s intended benefits may be significantly reduced.

A workplace culture that places a high value on long working hours and discourages time off for personal reasons can create a challenging environment, especially for working mothers. Parents who opt for paid parental leave often face a “commitment penalty,” being perceived as less dedicated to their job compared to colleagues who do not take leave (Petts, Mize, and Kaufman, 2021). Additionally, unconscious biases and stereotypes about gender roles influence how parental leave is both used and perceived (Parks-Stamm and Tharp, 2023). Stereotypes implying that women will be less committed to their careers after becoming mothers can foster a toxic workplace culture. Such culture instills concerns among all employees, suggesting that prioritizing family needs might be perceived as a compromise to workers’ commitment to their workplace and careers. Unsupportive workplace cultures hinder all employees’ ability to effectively balance their professional responsibilities with their familial roles. This underscores the critical need for reforms and changes in workplace culture that prioritize the integration of personal and professional spheres.  

Many workplaces do not have adequate policies in place to support women during pregnancy and postpartum (Bartel et al., 2019). In the United States, only about one-fourth of workers have access to paid parental leave (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023). Short maternity leave periods often mean that women do not have sufficient time to recover from the physical toll of childbirth (Bryant, 2020). This can lead to increased health risks, including postpartum complications and delayed recovery. Inadequate recovery time may also contribute to increased stress and fatigue, impacting a woman’s overall well-being during a critical period of adjustment to motherhood. Additionally, in the absence of supportive workplace policies, women may be forced to choose between their career and family responsibilities and leave the workforce altogether (Almeida and Salas-Betsch, 2023).

It is important to note that work-family conflict is particularly pronounced for women of color and women engaged in low-wage work (Bryant, 2020). The absence of supportive policies can exacerbate the challenges these mothers face in the labor market. Women of color, particularly those engaged in low-wage work, often contend with a set of systemic barriers, including racial disparities in access to supportive workplace policies. Studies indicate that these women are disproportionately affected by a lack of maternity leave, limited flexibility, and insufficient childcare options. Consequently, the unavailability of affordable and high-quality childcare options can compound the challenges all working parents face, making it difficult to ensure their children’s well-being while they are at work.

According to a study by Pew Research Center, there is a significant level of support among Americans for paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child. Most Americans largely support paid leave following birth or adoption of a child paid by employers (61%), the federal government (12%), or the state government (9%). This suggests that many Americans value a supportive workplace environment that adheres to the needs of working parents, especially during key junctures in their personal lives.

The connection between the challenges working mothers face and the societal support for paid leave reflects the intricate interplay between individual experiences and broader social structures. The challenges identified, such as the pressure to return to work shortly after childbirth and the potential impact on physical and emotional well-being, are not isolated incidents but rather manifestations of larger social patterns. The individual struggles of working mothers are influenced by societal norms, expectations, and institutional arrangements. The Pew Research Center study indicates a societal recognition of the need for supportive policies, reflecting shared values and attitudes toward work-family balance. This recognition is rooted in the acknowledgment that the intersection of work and family roles poses challenges, particularly for women during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Furthermore, the societal support for paid leave can be seen as a collective response to address the broader implications of work-family conflict. It signifies a shared understanding that policies need to be in place to accommodate the competing demands of work and family life, recognizing the importance of allowing individuals, especially working mothers, the necessary time, support, and resources to navigate these challenges.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What additional steps can employers take to foster a more supportive environment for working mothers, beyond legal requirements like FMLA and PWFA?
  2. How can a supportive workplace culture help alleviate the strain of work-family conflict for all parents navigating the demands of both roles?
  3. What kinds of policies could be designed to support all workers, regardless of their parental status, in fostering a workplace culture that recognizes the challenges faced across various life stages?


Bartel, Ann, P., Soohyun Kim, Jaehyun Nam, Maya Rossin-Slater, Christopher J. Ruhm, and Jane Waldfogel. January 2019. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities In Access to and Use Of Paid Family and Medical Leave: Evidence From Four Nationally Representative Datasets.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bryant, Miranda. January 27, 2020. “‘I Was Risking My Life’: Why One in Four U.S. Women Return to Work Two Weeks After Childbirth.” The Guardian.

Carrazana, Chabeli. July 3, 2023. “New Workplace Accommodations for Pregnant People Are Now in Effect. Here’s What They Cover.”  PBS News Hour.

Horowitz, Juliana, Parker, Kim, Graf, Nikki, and Livingston, Gretchen. March 23, 2017. “Americans Widely Support Paid Family and Medical Leave, but Differ Over Specific Policies.” Pew Research Center.

Parks-Stamm, Elizabeth, and Derek Tharp. May 23, 2023. “Men and Women Use Parental Leave Differently. They’re Judged Differently for It, Too.” Time.

Petts, Richard, J., Trenton D. Mize, and Gayle Kaufman. October 26, 2021. “Paid Leave Policy Design Matters for Workplace Equality.” The Gender Policy Report.

Rosalsky, Greg. August 22, 2023. “I’m a New Dad. Here’s Why I’m Taking More Parental Leave Than My Wife.” National Public Radio (NPR).

Scherer, Zachary. September 16, 2021. “College-Educated Women and Non-Hispanic White Women are More Likely to Work During First Pregnancy.” U.S. Census Bureau. 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 21, 2023. “What Data Does the BLS Publish on Family Leave.”

U.S. Department of Labor. Accessed December 26, 2023. “Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)”.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Accessed December 23, 2023. “What You Should Know About the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.”

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Petts, Richard J., Gayle Kaufman, and Trenton D. Mize. 2023. “Parental Leave‐Taking and Perceptions of Workers as Good Parents.” Journal of Marriage and Family 85(1): 261-279.

Petts, Richard J., Trenton D. Mize, and Gayle Kaufman. 2022. “Organizational Policies, Workplace Culture, And Perceived Job Commitment Of Mothers And Fathers Who Take Parental Leave.” Social Science Research 103: 102651.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Radu is an Associate Professor at Southeast Missouri State University in the Department of Criminal Justice, Social Work, and Sociology. Specializing in the critical examination of social inequality, Dr. Radu teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses. Her instructional focus encompasses key sociological topics such as work and family conflict, social stratification and inequality, racial and ethnic relations, social problems, and deviant social behavior. Beyond traditional pedagogy, Dr. Radu is committed to fostering conducive learning environments. She has delivered presentations emphasizing critical reflection for enhanced student engagement, empowerment strategies for parenting scholars, and flexible, empathetic support tailored to non-traditional students. In the realm of research, Dr. Radu investigates various facets of social issues, with a particular emphasis on bullying, intimate partner violence, work-family conflict, and the dynamics of crowdfunding. Her recent scholarly contribution includes co-editing a book titled Race, Racism, and Inequality in the Digital Age, which examines the complex interplay of these societal elements.

Profile Photo of Monica Radu, Associate Professor Southeast Missouri State University