Let’s flip the idea of the childrearing career penalty for women on its head: What if being a working mom was seen as a career enhancement?

Think about it for a moment. When men become working dads, they’re seen as settling down, getting grounded, reaching maturity. We perceive their family focus as a step forward in terms of personal growth, leadership, becoming a pillar of the community.

When women become working moms, we attach a different set of stereotypes: We are spread thin, distracted, harried or even manic — we struggle to “balance it all.” We’re depicted as resenting having to work or as cold workaholics who outsource our children’s care. The media reinforces this image, reminding us constantly that being a working mom is an impossible challenge and that having children is certain to slow career and salary growth. A quick Google news search found 48,000 articles about “working moms,” with top results including a description of working motherhood by celebrity Eva Mendes as being “so hard,” a Wired article titled, “Why It’s So Hard Being a Working Mom. Even at Facebook,” and a New York Times article with the headline, “For a Working-Mom Reporter, ‘the Juggle’ Is Real.”

A similar search for “working dad,” predictably, does not return such dire and neg­ative messages. It’s no wonder we’ve cultivated biases that affect women’s salaries, assignments and advancement once they join the working mom ranks. The disparity in perception even has its own nomenclature: the “mommy tax” and the “daddy bonus.” Recent economic research by Sari Kerr, an economist at Wellesley College, affirms that the gender wage gap is largely due to motherhood. The same study — and this is some­thing that employers and managers can affect — found that the bulk of the pay gap, 73%, is due to a lack of salary increases and advancement within companies.

Revealing the Truth

I call our cultural image of working motherhood a myth because it’s not real. What if having children were viewed, for women in the workplace, similarly as it is for men, as a reason to get more focused, achieve your goals, be a top performer and reach your maximum career potential. Working motherhood is nothing new, and recent examples illustrate what’s possible when we reject the stereotypes. These include Beyoncé, who after having her first child and then twins, has made some of the most celebrated and creative work of her career. A recent Chase ad campaign featuring Serena Williams repurposes L. L. Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” to celebrate her return to the U.S. Open as a new mother. Kristin Lemkau, CMO of JPMorgan Chase (also, ahem, a mom), called the piece “The best piece of work I’ve ever been a part of.” These are women at the top of their games, visibly drawing strength from their experiences as moms.

On our path to equality, it’s time to fix the perception that having a child is a career setback for women. Of course there are challenges, time constraints and very real life­style changes that may impede certain types of work — but isn’t that also true of men in the workplace who are parents?

Could Being a Mom Improve Your Performance?

The default narrative is that once a woman becomes a parent, she has “other priorities.” Work becomes less important than it once was, and moms are less focused, engaged and effective, and certainly not looking for stretch assignments or advancement. There’s real evidence, however, including a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, that being a mother actually helps women become more focused and productive. We know that top-performing executives make time to unplug, and what better way to “turn off” the noise of work than caring for, and interacting with, children?

In addition to being more focused, motivated and energized about work, there’s another reason being a mom makes us more effective: the working mom network. This invisible but ever-present network is a powerful career and business tool — we help each other with advice, career opportunities and best practices. Tapping my network even helped me secure my current role at Cognizant — so rather than hurting my career, embracing the common ground I now have with millions of other women has helped me immensely.

The Energizing Force of Being a Parent

Whether it’s my 4-year old, determined to be a “firefighter, astronaut and then race car driver,” or my 8-year-old, who one day is designing a robot, and another day dream­ing up a kid-owned restaurant, kids remind us that we can dream big and reinvent ourselves — at any age. My own children have reignited my creativity and inspired me to do my best work. They encourage me to take time to play and rethink my own assump­tions about what’s possible (just … not the restaurant!).

Having children has certainly affected some of my career decisions: I turned down a sales job with up to 75% travel. I also declined to join a promising start-up because I wanted the stability and benefits that come with working for an established company. And it bears mentioning that my husband and I work together to manage the home-and-childcare responsibilities so that we both can succeed in our professional lives.

But having children has also taught me to embrace possibilities and be more flexible and fearless. I’ve taken on new challenges and responsibilities, received promotions and strategic assignments — and today, my children remind me that I can do anything with enough focus and determination.

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We’ve assembled some of Cognizant’s keenest minds to share their thoughts on how businesses can improve diversity and inclusion, both in an e-book, “Making Room: Reflections on Diversity & Inclusion in the Future of Work,” and a blog series.

In addition to our kick-off article on D&I in the tech industry, our upcoming blogs will cover an array of topics, grouped in four categories:

We invite you to read and welcome your comments to continue this vital discussion.

–Blog editors Desmond Dickerson, Senior Consultant, and Caroline Styr, Research Analyst, Cognizant Center for the Future of Work

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Feather Hickox

Feather Hickox

Feather Hickox is AVP Marketing within Cognizant’s Digital Business practice, and also serves as the Executive Sponsor for Cognizant Women Empowered, a... Read more