Caring for children grows skills that are transferable to paid work

How caring for children grows skills that are directly transferable to paid work

Sally McNamara

The reality of the ‘motherhood penalty’ on wages and career progression is well documented, along with some of the reasons it exists — such as lost experience, gender norms and lack of flexibility. Bias and stereotypes underpinning this penalty are also well documented–including multiple studies demonstrating how mothers are perceived as having less competence and commitment in paid work. A recent Treasury report sums up the gravity: “Considerable gender inequality remains in Australia, and in this paper, we show the vast majority of this inequality can be explained by children. The arrival of a child reduces women’s earnings by around 55 per cent in the first 5 years, while men’s earnings are not significantly affected”.  

It’s now established that pregnancy and postpartum (known as ‘matrescence’) represent a transformation so great in brain and body that it is akin to the levels of growth and change we experience in adolescence. In 2016, through a paper published in the ‘Nature Neuroscience’ journal, we saw how pregnancy changes the very structure of women’s brains, enhancing social cognition, empathy and theory of mind (the ability to understand others). Far from a time of ‘baby brain’ and cognitive decline, pregnant women and new mothers are primed for learning.  

What we have learned, is that if you ask working mothers to answer a few simple questions, they can very easily articulate how they have grown a host of highly transferable skills that amplify their paid work. Women light up when encouraged to process their transformation to mother through a lens of learning, rather than through a lens of obstruction.  

Kim Dawe (Leadership and Talent at KPMG) knows how powerful this lens switch can be. She deliberately approached her pregnancy and postpartum through the lens of “adult development” to consider how becoming a mother may provide the same type of cognitive developmental experience that a leadership program does. In designing leadership programs, Kim notes they are often looking to create behavioural shifts that provide access to more complex ways of thinking. Such as: a shift from people feeling limited and controlled by time, to owning how they prioritise their time; a shift in worldview that considers ‘we’ not just ‘I’; clarity on personal values; and the ability to manage polarities – ‘both/and’ thinking rather than ‘either/or’. Kim reflects that many of the ways women show up differently in their return to paid work could be seen as an indicator that accelerated adult development has occurred, meaning greater leadership potential, not less. 

Initial dialogue sessions we have run with working mothers at RMIT FORWARD (Centre for Future Skills and Workforce Transformation), reveal this skills growth in striking detail.  

Emotional Regulation / Self-Awareness / Empathy 

Madlen Toumbourou (Business Development NFP and Social Impact) has honed the skills of emotional regulation, self-awareness, and empathy through caring for a sensitive child. Attuning to her child’s emotional needs inspired Madlen to learn more about how to understand and regulate her own nervous system. As Madlen shares: “This new capacity enhances the skills required to do my job well, including: decision making, problem solving, communication, prioritisation, listening skills, innovation, stress management, and development of new technical skills. My understanding about how co-regulation in infancy can impact us in adulthood, support me to be empathetic, to perspective take, to manage difficult interactions, and support psychological safety with my team and clients. This knowledge is also the foundation of a trauma informed approach to safe and inclusive workplace practices.” 


Emily Hehir (Education) knows what it takes to build grit and resilience – managing three dysregulated young children alone in and out of cars and travelling on public transport – all whilst solving for tantrums in public spaces and poo tsunamis. As she puts it, the benefits to her paid work are huge – “Nothing really fazes me now. Drama and superficiality slide right off me because I have been in extremely challenging contexts with no back up and no one to manage but myself and I now know I can do very hard things so I’m able to stay calm, even in new and challenging situations”. 


Belinda Wall (Brand Marketing), has grown her collaboration skills through experiencing significant post-natal depletion and realising the only way to support the healthy development of her baby girl was to do everything and anything required to get herself back on track. As Belinda puts it, this is paying dividends in her work now: “I’m now all about asking for help and collaborating with others to do my job better! I no longer have ego or insecurity around ‘needing’ the support of other brains or hands to deliver great results, on time. Ultimately, I recognise that working collaboratively is also far more sustainable in terms of supporting my own wellbeing and capacity to perform in the marathon of life ahead”. 

Connection / Authenticity 

Hayley Purbrick (Agriculture, Food & Beverage) prizes how she’s been grown her capacity for connection and authenticity, as she puts it: “Before I had children, I would react by going into problem solving mode or minimise the feelings of others to reduce my own personal discomfort. Raising a child who sees the world through a different lens to my own has offered me many moments for reflection and perspective taking. I have more capacity to allow people to express their feelings and work through their own thoughts without taking them on as my own problems to solve. This experience has improved my ability to connect with others. Being a better listener enables me to have more impactful conversations”. 

These examples clearly illustrate how caring for children can grow skills that are directly transferable to paid work. Critical leadership skills such as: adaptability; authenticity; collaboration; communication; creativity; emotional awareness and regulation; empathy; humility; inclusion; innovation; problem solving; resilience; self-awareness and more. 

Whilst we may not be able to predict the future of work – we do know that the skills we need in work are changing and will continue to change. What better example of these skills and qualities in action than pregnancy, postpartum and parenthood? It’s the very definition of “just in time” learning. We need to see the full life cycle of motherhood (fertility, conception, pregnancy, birth, postpartum, mothering) through the lens of learning and development – to boost confidence and counter bias around commitment and competence. 


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