File photo: In a study of workers’ attitudes, women who took time off to care for babies were seen as less committed and competent at work. Picture: AP

Mothers are judged negatively whether they take maternity leave or not, new research suggests.

In a study of workers’ attitudes, women who took time off to care for babies were seen as less committed and competent at work.

However, mothers who continued working after giving birth were viewed as less caring parents.

The results suggest women are "damned’ either way, according to lead author Dr Thekla Morgenroth, from the University of Exeter. "This is a no-win situation," she said. "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. It is important to have policies which allow women to balance work and family life, but it’s also important to understand people’s use of these policies may have unintended consequences." The study examined the attitudes of 137 women and 157 men, all employed, mostly from the US and the UK.

The majority of participants in the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, were working full-time and had no children.

Three groups of participants were given information about a fictional woman. The only difference between the information was whether the woman had chosen to take maternity leave.

In one version she had taken leave, in another she had continued working, and in a third, the control group, the issue was not mentioned.

Participants were then asked to evaluate the woman as a worker and a parent – with negative family results for a woman who kept working, and negative working results for a woman who took maternity leave.

Dr Morgenroth, who worked on the research along with Professor Madeline Heilman of New York University, said: "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."