A new study on maternity leave validates a truth known to many working mothers: We are damned if we do, and damned if we don't.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in England examined workers' attitudes around mothers who took time off from their jobs to care for newborn babies. They found that women who took maternity leave, whether paid or not, were perceived as less competent or less committed to work. And when women did not take maternity leave, they were seen as less committed to their children and families.

“This is a no-win situation for women,” lead author Dr. Thekla Morgenroth said in a statement. “Our results show that perceptions of competence, whether in the work or family domain, were never boosted — but only impaired — by the maternity leave decision. Both decisions had negative consequences, albeit in different domains."

For the study, 137 women and 157 men who were all employed, mostly from the U.S. and U.K., were divided into three groups. They were given information about a fictional woman named Jennifer, and the only difference between what the groups were told was whether Jennifer had chosen to take maternity leave. One group was told she took it, another group was told she continued to work, and the third group didn't hear anything about maternity leave.

The volunteers were asked to evaluate Jennifer's abilities as a worker and as a parent. They responded with "negative family results for a woman who kept working, and negative working results for a woman who took maternity leave," according to the press release.

“These effects occurred regardless of the respondent's gender, age, parental status or nationality — which suggests these attitudes are universal and pervasive in our culture,” said Morgenroth.

What can we do?

Societal beliefs about mothers — and working mothers in particular — are so deeply held that it's difficult to imagine speedy change. However, Morgenroth has two suggestions to change the way our culture thinks. First, companies should offer paid maternity leave. Second, they should offer paid paternity leaves for men, too.

“I strongly believe that paid maternity leave is helping mothers and I would not want people to interpret our findings as a reason not to offer maternity leave. However, offering paid leave for mothers and fathers would be even better. In that case, parents could share the responsibilities — and the blame that is likely to come with it,” she told Fatherly.

And while we wait for winds of change to shift perspectives, she has this advice for working mothers: "These are just stupid gender stereotypes. Don’t internalize them.”

Easier said than done.

Angela Nelson ( @bostonangela ) is an exhausted mom of two young daughters and two old cats, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning digital editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and information to audiences worldwide.

Maternity leave catch-22: Women are either bad workers or bad moms
Working mothers can't win. New research finds society judges us negatively whether we take maternity leave or not.