Women now have equal access to a broad range of traditionally male careers. Their wages are achieving parity with men in most fields of work. That is, however, until they become mothers. Motherhood has a significant effect on the wages and employment of women in a way that fatherhood does not for men.
Women, as a proportion of "ideal workers", grew to nearly 45% in 2002 (2002 Study of the Changing Workforce). Things change when they become parents, as mothers comprise only 7% of ideal workers. This has less to do with overt discrimination than simply a workplace that assumes availability 24/7, based on gendered assumptions about how work gets done. It often does not provide the mechanisms for integrating parenting and professional responsibilities free from associated career penalties.
Gap, Inc. recently revised its FWA policy to explicitly require senior executives to work full-time. While this policy may go unsaid at many other companies, it does reinforce the "mommy-track" dead-end that makes FWAs unattractive to ambitious, talented employees.
Current Success Often Requires Sole Focus on Work
Combining the roles of parent and professional in a corporate environment is extremely difficult regardless of gender. In a 2008 study by the Anita Borg Institute, men were three times more likely than women to hold a high-level position and four times more likely to have a partner who had primary responsibility for taking care of the household and children. And, in fact, over one-third of women on the Fortune 50 have stay-at-home husbands.
Gender Neutral Flexibility is the First Step
When the utilization of flexibility by both men and women becomes the norm, then there will less of a motherhood penalty. It is imperative that both parents are encouraged to share in day-to-day family responsibilities while building their careers, without career penalty. Employers should not presume a work-centric mode in evaluating the contributions of its employees.