Posted by: rachelkingle | January 31, 2018

The Mom Expectation

In The Great Woman Theory of Leadership? chapter by Pittinsky, Bacon, and Welle we read about the particular challenges that come with pedestals and positive stereotypes of women leaders. One of those positive stereotypes is “the mother”. The image of the mother is ingrained in our cultural consciousness, especially visible in the figure of the Virgin Mary. The archetypal mother is gentle, nurturing, accepting, comforting, domestic, and many other associated qualities. They’re often defined by their selflessness, devoting their lives towards raising their children and not asking for much in return. It’s a role that’s been revered for a very long time.

Pittinsky, Bacon, and Welle wisely pointed out that in the workplace, this positive stereotype can cause problems for a woman trying to leave. Though we don’t consciously think it, we might mentally equate a female leader as a mother figure. Sometimes it’s more on the nose, like calling Elizabeth II “Queen Mother”. It makes some sense, because in our childhoods the female authority figure was mother. However, this unconscious bridge can result in subordinates expecting their female managers to act the part. They might expect her to take interest in their emotional health and wellness, or be a counselor they can come to problems with. If the female leader doesn’t respond to these expectations, she might be seen as oddly cold and unfeminine (even though she’s probably just trying to keep things professional). Another problem with the mother figure is the selflessness quality; if a woman leader does respond as emotional support she’s rarely thanked for the effort.

Reading about these unexpected consequences rung as truth for me. I’m considered the “mom friend” of my group, and I exhibit plenty of motherly qualities (are they intrinsic or cultivated? I wonder). Often friends chose to confide in me, and though I’m happy to support them it has taken a toll on me in the past. I don’t think I could handle being expected to do that for all my subordinates, but my momliness will probably show up regardless.

My question to readers is: Have you unconsciously expected a woman leader to exhibit some motherly qualities? Or have you found yourself better liking female leaders who fit into the mother image? And for my female classmates, have you been on the receiving end? Do you go along with being motherly or avoid it?

(Also: I’ve totally called a teacher mom on accident before. Share if you have.)


  1. Hi Rachel, fellow mom friend here. I really enjoyed reading what you wrote about the ‘motherly’ aspect of female stereotypes. I took a leadership course last semester where we talked about Queen Elizabeth the first. She, too, was referred to as a mother. Though she never bore children, she took on the role of the mother of the country. She used her feminine traits to her advantage, as she was a female ruler in a masculine-centric government. I also think that your point about women not being thanked if she shows emotional support. This echoes the Fletcher reading for Monday that women wouldn’t be acknowledged if they showed traits of post-heroic leadership. This seems to be a trend within women in leadership. Women seem to be held to higher standards than men are, and things that are normal for women to do are considered extraordinary when men do them.

  2. This stuck out to me in class discussions also. It is common for female leaders to be compared to mothers. The definition of leadership doesn’t have to do with motherly traits, though. I agree that the root of this problem probably starts with childhood, and typically having a mother take care of the children.

    This concept reminds me of how little kids accidentally call their teachers Mom in class, like you mention at the end. I remember this happening in my classes during elementary school. I would always wonder why some students could easily mistake our teacher for their mom? It makes me realize that in the younger development stages of childhood learning, a teacher is expected to care for the children a lot more than professors in college. Sometimes, college students go to female professors’ office hours to try to get an extension on an assignment or some kind of lenience by providing a sob story and relating on an emotional level. I haven’t heard of students going to their male professors with this same kind of approach. Is it because in elementary, middle, and high school, we didn’t have as many male teachers? So, to answer your question, I believe that students unconsciously expect women professors to relate emotionally, and provide support, like a mother would.

  3. My entire family is consisted of teachers and often the females in my family discuss amongst themselves the expectations that their students have about them becoming a second mother. When a person begins schooling at the age of five, they have left the home environment often for the first time and enter a new world. Through assimilation, I believe that we begin to unconsciously associate our teacher as our mother. This is especially relevant because most elementary teachers are female. Since this can be the first instance a child is away from home for a long period of time, their teachers can provide that emotional support that a mother would provide already. This extends even into high school. My mother has often taken the role of a being a second mother to a student within her leadership position. She has clothed and fed her students, taken them to receive haircuts, listened to their problems, while providing them with her emotional support. When asked why, she stated that some of her students do not have parent figure in their lives. She has found that adopting the motherly role has allowed her to better influence her students and take control in the classroom.

  4. There are many times where I have caught myself unconsciously expecting a woman leader the exhibit motherly qualities largely in part that they already assume these roles. In many ways, I find that I am quite conscious of what I expect from people, but the instances that I have been projecting these qualities onto women, they often regard themselves as “mom’s” already. Additionally, I find that sometimes the stereotypical “mom” approach might be the best approach. For example, among many of the older men that I teach tennis lessons for have a very traditional approach to gender stereotypes and this plays in the favor of women that know how to use it to their advantage. When they were times that myself could handle the situation with the older men, my boss (a woman), who is typically known for being very harsh and straight forward to many of the junior of the club played the role of charming all the men to settle down. These leads into the next question, where it depends on how traditional your views are and your environment that will determine how you see women leaders.

  5. I personally have been considered the “mom” in certain situations. It hasn’t actually bothered me though because by nature I am very nurturing, comforting, and concerned with people’s wellbeing so it’s not weird that individuals would associate me with being a motherly figure. However, I can see how this could be a problem for women who do not naturally have these traits and/or do not wish to be seen as a mother figure to those they are leading.

  6. Hi there! This concept stuck out to me as well. In many different friend groups, I too have been assigned the role of the “mom”. Like Carolyn, I am not really bothered by this because I feel as if I fit the description of the role well. I am responsible, compassionate, and I tend to want to look out for those around me. I feel like it is sometimes easier to relate to and form relationships with those who display these traits. While I don’t think I expect all women leaders to be “motherly”, I can identify instances in which I was thrown off when my female professors did not display maternal characteristics. I have found it harder to connect with my more “masculine” professors. I see how this is problematic. Sometimes I feel like I can’t display my more “masculine” traits because people will not appreciate them, especially because they are so used to me being the “mom”. I can see how this is problematic because sometimes, it is necessary to use more agentic qualities in leadership. Other times, having these more “masculine traits” is a leader’s default. Just like being the “mom” can pay off in some instances and not others, so too can being the “masculine” leader. I think it is important for us to examine leaders and leadership situations with an open mind so that we can adapt our expectations to fit the context.

  7. I think in general women are seen as the caretakers. Even in modern day society with roles changing, women are still the ones expected to take care of everyone. When women reach power, this is amplified, and they are supposed to be the mother of all the people. When people don’t see this motherly characteristic, they are often called into question. For example, when Melanie Trump was at the elections, people were judging how motherly she was. The first lady is expected to be just a motherly figure head of the country, and failure with this, makes the women heavily judged.

    I definitively think that’s why so women are seen as cold. They are expected to be this motherly figure of everyone when that is not fair. When these women fail these expectations of mother, they are often too stripped of their characteristics of a women too. Even with changing roles, this stigma doesn’t break. I think this will continue to be an issue just because women are the ones that bare children and are good with emotions.

    I also know that I do not fit the role of the mother friend completely. But I do know that I am expected to be more emotional just because I am a female. And then, I am judged if I am too emotional.

    And yes, I have called my teacher mom way too many times.

  8. Yes, I have definitely called my teachers mom plenty of times, and it has led to many embarrassing moments. I never really thought it to be justified until I read this article, which brought light to why I was probably subconsciously making this mistake. I definitely agree that women have to fulfill that expectation of being nurturing and caring and emotional. This class has really put that into perspective for me, and I’m glad it did because in addition to me judging women for being poor leaders just because they don’t fit a “motherly” schema, I’ve realized I am one of these women who get unfairly judged. I possess masculine qualities in a sense that I am not as externally emotional or good at showing that I care, which makes other girls think I am a bitch, but if I was held to a typical man standard then I would maybe even be considered nice. I’m glad this class has also put that into perspective for me because it makes me feel better about myself and why people view me in that way.

  9. I am also considered “the mom” by all of my friends. I think it is common for people to associate women with helping and caring for others. I also believe that personal characteristics can bring people to this conclusion faster than others. I have plenty of female friends, however, of all of them, I am the one to be thought of as the mom. I tend to focus on safety of others, which is something that a caretaker would do. I also like to ensure the well-being of those around me. Your question made me think. Are these qualities intrinsic, or did I learn them over the years by subconsciously copying the women in my life?
    As you mentioned, a lot of our readings have talked about female stereotypes and how they affect women in the workplace. One of those stereotypes is being prone to assume all women should take on mother-like qualities. In class we talked about how people are more open and willing to accept someone that fits their personal schema of that group of people. However, if their actions clash, then they are more likely to be disliked. I think women that do not possess sensitive and caring traits are at a disadvantage to women that do. It is common for directive women to be disliked. They are often thought of as “bossy” rather than “decisive”. It is unfortunate, but I do not think it will be easy for people to change their beliefs about this. Often times these assumptions and stereotypes happen subconsciously, so it would be difficult to completely change someone’s preconceived mindset about this issue.

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