Careers Working With Disabled Children

More research by other academics have shown:

• Employed mothers face a 24 percent wage penalty for one child,56 and 44 percent for two or more children independent of their work interruptions, part-time work, and job level

• The pay gap between mothers and non-mothers is larger than the pay gap between women and men

• Visibly pregnant managers are deemed to be less authoritative, less dependable, and more irrational

All of this research has finally given a name to what so many mothers in the workplace intuitively know they face each and every day: motherhood bias. And it cuts both ways because this bias often leads to what Joan C. Williams has called the “maternal wall.”57

While the glass ceiling keeps women from rising to the top, the maternal wall keeps them locked in a professional box. It’s fueled by the unconscious bias that underlies the belief that mothers must be the primary parent and as such can’t be as committed to their jobs. Joan’s research and those of others has shown that when women become mothers they are perceived as less competent, less committed, and less promotable. One study found that when women return from maternity leave their subsequent performance reviews plummet.58 A 2004 landmark federal case validated this.

Elana Back, a school psychologist, claimed that after returning from a three-month parental leave, her female supervisors began making biased comments and remarks including asking how she was “planning on spacing [her] offspring,” with one even suggesting Elana “not … get pregnant until I retire.”59 Elana claimed her supervisor expressed concern about her ability to work because she had “little ones” at home and it was “not possible for [her] to be a good mother and have this job.”

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In Back v. Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District, the federal court agreed60 with Back and ruled that the use of motherhood stereotypes of female employees is gender discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in public employment.

Fighting against the maternal wall is something all mothers face whether they want to pull back their careers or not. Carolyn Herzog, vice president of Symantec’s Legal and Public Affairs department, can certainly attest to this. As the primary breadwinner in her family, she is willing and able to “lean in” but has found she often has to “help” her bosses overcome their misperception about her commitment.

I met Carolyn when she agreed to participate on a panel I was moderating about women’s leadership for an event at Linkedln. When I asked the panelists if they felt they had faced motherhood bias in their careers, Carolyn said, “Absolutely, but not as you might think.”

She told the audience, “As I was preparing to go on maternity leave, my boss suggested I might want to ease back slowly. She even offered to let me work part-time at first.” Carolyn went on to say, “You’d think that would be great for a new mother, but I didn’t want or need that. I had a husband at home who was the primary parent, which allowed me to focus on my career. I was raring to go. My boss’s preconceived idea of what a mother wants or needs could have held me back if I hadn’t spoken up and been very clear about my professional goals and dreams.”

The maternal wall presumes all women want to put their families first and also that all women must put their families first. But as we know, how each woman integrates her work and her family obligations is unique to her own set of circumstances. At the very least, we should be empowering women by giving them the opportunity to make self-directed choices, not forcing them into preconceived ideas of what it means to be a mother in the workplace.

For those mothers who do want or need to downshift temporarily, Professor Joan Williams has discovered they face yet another issue: an unrelenting stigma against flexibility.

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