by Kendal Wright and Dr Keely Duddin, Policing Organisation and Practice, The Open University
“Before Breaking The Glass Ceiling, Women Must Climb The Maternal Wall”
Welcome to the third blog in this special series celebrating International Women’s Day. Todays post shares an insight into a ground-breaking study exploring women’s experiences of motherhood in the police.
Last summer our research team pressed the ‘go live’ button on our pregnancy and maternity experiences survey, what happened next took us beyond our expectations. Within a two-month period we had almost 6000 responses, and over 9000 free text responses. We believe this survey to be largest piece of research to have ever been conducted on this topic in policing, and in the public sector in the UK.
As we watched the responses continue to grow, it hit home how important this research is to so many people and how much progress we still need to make. It was a humbling experience to see the time and effort participants took to communicate their stories and we had many people comment on how cathartic the process was in enabling them to voice their experiences.
Maternal bias background
Research around maternal bias is gaining traction and research shows real evidence of a level of maternal bias in organisations, where some colleagues can view mothers, – or pregnant women as less competent and less committed to their jobs (Arena et al, 2023). Further research (Ogden, 2019) has suggested that working mothers can face a specific type of bias named ‘maternal wall bias’, which can manifest itself in different ways, for example in conducting performance evaluations or for taking on challenging assignments or promotion opportunities because of their assumed lack of time and desire (Ogden, 2019). In a milestone study, Correll and colleagues (2007) found evidence for a ‘motherhood penalty’ which demonstrated that working mothers were only recommended 47% of the time for hire, vs 84% of female applicants who didn’t have children and were penalised on a host of measures, including perceived competence. Furthermore, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) found that a third of employers felt that women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are ‘generally less interested’ in career progression, when compared to other employees in their company.
What the survey tells us
As we started to analyse the results, we found 29.2% of free-text responses contained an element of mothers experiencing maternal bias. Take that into consideration of how many free text responses were received, that’s almost 3000 responses where a mother has felt bias towards her as an individual in the workplace since announcing their pregnancy or returning from maternity leave.
“I was told during my last pregnancy that if I wanted a promotion I would need to “stop getting pregnant”. This was after the loss of my first pregnancy after joining the force”.
Police staff/ Practitioner/ Last period of maternity 2-3 years ago
“Told not to consider promotion until I was no longer a flexible worker”
Police Officer/ Sgt/ Last period of maternity 5+ years ago
“I think regardless of how supportive supervisors and colleagues are – a new mother is never considered for promotions etc. You are almost seen as a liability because you take care of a young child. They would prefer single workers who do not have other responsibilities. It’s not an open culture but definitely exists.”
Police staff/ Practitioner/ Last period of maternity 1-2 years ago
“Better support needed on return from maternity leave and balancing new responsibilities with work responsibilities. Also, action is needed on unconscious bias where managers assume that you want to focus solely on your children and are not interested in development anymore.”
Police Officer/ Inspector/ Last period of maternity 1-2 years ago
Why it’s important
It’s an evolutionary fact that a large number of employed women will go on to have at least one period of maternity leave during their career. However, there has been little police-based research published recently around officers and staff returning to the workplace after maternity leave.
Historically where police organisations have been male-dominated places of work, organisations now actively promote recruitment drives with one of the aims to diversify the workplace to suit the communities they serve, including increasing the number of female officers recruited. This concerted effort has led to the number of female officers in UK police forces increasing to over 50,000 (Gov.uk 2022). Charman & Tyson (2022) carried out research examining the stark increase of voluntary resignations, some of those reasons cited included the lack of visibility of flexible working mothers in senior roles. Findings in our research support the notion that police organisations must transform working practices around embracing and supporting motherhood if they wish to retain their much longed-for and much-needed diversified workforce.
Let’s not continue to make assumptions on a mother’s behalf about their ambition and commitment to the role just because they had a baby. What a mother doesn’t learn about time management, multi-tasking, patience, and negotiation when dealing with a teething baby isn’t worth knowing.
Policing for the future needs to embrace working mothers and put an end to the maternal bias they may face as they return to work, regardless of their aspirations. “Have a heart, remember we (mothers) are as much value to the organisation as others…” (Participant 132). Mothers should feel supported and valued by their organisations and policing as a career shouldn’t result in the “motherhood penalty”.
If you would like to know more about this research, please contact us at