Lest you think this is a posting about the influence of Freudian-based issues in the workplace, allow me to quickly move your attention to the role of working mothers in the labor force and corporate attitudes toward them, which according to some studies suggest have become more negative during the economic downturn.

Since the 20th century the role of the modern woman has progressively and cumulatively taken on one role after another to the point where working women nearly suffer from multiple personality disorder just to be considered functioning members of society. From the “Rosie Riveters” of the World War II era, to the classic sitcom mothers of the 1950s and 60s, and present day where, in an increasing number of households, a woman is the sole primary breadwinner (often not because she is a single mother but because her earning potential outweighs that of her husband). On balance in 2011, it seems that women must be all of these things at once. If working women were a Darwinian case study, they would certainly prove the fittest of the species.

Yet for all the progress made by women, many firms are still reluctant to hire working and returning mothers. A study by Regus, a leader in workplace solutions, has tracked attitudes toward working mothers in 2009 and 2010 , revealing some interesting statistics:

  • 24% believe that the skill sets of returning mothers may be out of date
  • 36% of firms surveyed indicate they plan on hiring working mothers in the next year (compared to 44% one-year ago)
  • 37% of firms express concerns that returning mothers will not offer the same flexibility and commitment as other employees
  • 57% of firms indicate that working mothers are valuable given that they offer experience and skills without demanding high salaries

What grabs my eye here is that working mothers are viewed at once as a kind of remedial class of worker who upon leaving the workforce apparently loses all their education and skills, as well as a type of bargain basement find that seems resigned to work for whatever salary they can find.

Were this same survey related to people leaving the workforce to pursue a Master’s Degree, join the Peace Corps, or perform Military Service (other events considered as life milestones), surely there would be no reluctance to hire these individuals. Why so with returning mothers?

On the bright side, the Regus study found that 72% of respondents indicated that working mothers are a valuable part of the employment pool. The countries with the highest appreciation for returning mothers were Japan (54%), Mexico (48%), Australia and Canada (38%) and the lowest were India (11%) and South Africa (17%).

And so, perhaps what we are actually seeing is a hybrid of old-fashioned views towards working mothers and contemporary views that crosses even cultural barriers.

Indeed the value of working mothers and their skill sets are more unique than most give credit for. A recent book (which I personally have yet to read) by Dr. Birute Regine called Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the World examines the results obtained through Collaborative Power by looking at real life success stories of women in the business world and international arena.

Collaborative Power, which is a natural form in many women, is somewhat akin to the Old Boys Networks but with a flair of Nash’s Game Theory. That is, finding our common benefit as opposed to the Type A competitiveness traditionally prized in a male-dominated workforce, or as Regine calls it, “gladiator culture”.

Regine also submits that many women who become Iron Butterflies share many of the same uphill struggles and frustrations which empower and strengthen them to become, “radically vulnerable, revolutionary, a strong healer and someone who welcomes the paradoxical into their life”. Though these adjectives would hardly ever be used to describe a male magnate of industry, these qualities are honed by women leaders. The result is that they are often more resilient and effective than their male counterparts given their ability to adapt, promote more meaningful business connections, and perhaps most importantly think several steps ahead of the game with a somewhat maternal protectiveness for their company and team.

If you are an employer seeking to expand your workforce and would be enticed by a candidate with a profile such as an Iron Butterfly, look no further than the working mothers in your pile of CVs.

iMother’s Day?: A study of trends in hiring working mothers across the globe”, Regus Global Report (January 2011)