The open se­cret of anti-mom bias at work

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion - KATHER­INE GOLD­STEIN Kather­ine Gold­stein is a jour­nal­ist who’s de­vel­op­ing a pod­cast about mil­len­nial work­ing moth­ers.

Last fall, I was in a meet­ing with a leader in women’s health, dis­cussing re-en­try-to-work pro­grams for new moth­ers when, out of the blue, she be­gan com­plain­ing about a for­mer em­ployee. This em­ployee on their small team had got­ten preg­nant, the wo­man said — and it was a prob­lem: “She was way too fo­cused on her preg­nancy. It was dis­tract­ing her. I didn’t think she was go­ing to be com­mit­ted enough to the job, so I had to let her go.”

I looked at her, stunned. This wo­man — a mother her­self — who worked on a range on ini­tia­tives to sup­port women was openly and ca­su­ally ad­mit­ting to il­le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion, against an­other mother.

In re­cent months, we’ve seen a flood of sto­ries about sex­ual ha­rass­ment and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place. But the strug­gles of moth­ers specif­i­cally have been largely left out of the spot­light — even though, as in my con­ver­sa­tion with this wo­man, the bias against them is of­ten ca­sual, open and un­apolo­getic.

Law­suits in­di­cat­ing the scale and scope of this type of dis­crim­i­na­tion abound. In a case in Illi­nois, a wo­man took her em­ployer to court af­ter he flat out ad­mit­ted that he pre­ferred to work with peo­ple with­out chil­dren. He then de­nied her promised com­pen­sa­tion af­ter she met her sales goals, which he had given to oth­ers who weren’t par­ents. She was even­tu­ally fired when she had to resched­ule a meet­ing be­cause of a sick child. She filed a dis­crim­i­na­tion claim and won.

There’s wide­spread ev­i­dence that bias against moth­ers is a sys­temic prob­lem be­yond a few bad bosses. Re­search reg­u­larly shows that moth­ers are rou­tinely viewed as less com­pe­tent and com­mit­ted to their jobs, de­spite ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

A study pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of So­ci­ol­ogy has found that in in­stances when job can­di­dates were equal in ev­ery way ex­cept for a sub­tle in­di­ca­tion that the can­di­date was a par­ent, be­ing a mother re­duced the chance that a can­di­date would be of­fered the job by 37 per­cent­age points. The rec­om­mended salary for moth­ers who were of­fered the job was $11,000 less than for child­less fe­male can­di­dates. (Re­searchers have found that this hir­ing and pay bias doesn’t af­fect fathers at all. In fact, fathers tend to make more money than their child­less male coun­ter­parts.)

The con­se­quences of this kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion are enor­mous. New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller high­lighted a range of re­search showing that the earn­ings of women who have chil­dren dur­ing the prime child­bear­ing years of 25 to 35 never re­cover rel­a­tive to their hus­bands’. Child­less women’s earn­ings gen­er­ally stay close to that of men, and hav­ing a child leads to a big dip in short-term earn­ings and long-term salary tra­jec­tory. A lack of pro­fes­sional ad­vance­ment for moth­ers as a re­sult of bias, termed the “ma­ter­nal wall,” of­ten has a big im­pact on who makes it to top lead­er­ship po­si­tions. That in turn de­ter­mines who’s set­ting poli­cies that af­fect younger moth­ers who are com­ing up in the work­force.

So why aren’t more moth­ers speak­ing up more in pub­lic, #MeToo style, with messy raw­ness about the in­jus­tices they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in the work­place? I have a few the­o­ries. Work­ing moth­ers, be­cause they have fam­i­lies to sup­port, have more to lose and may be less will­ing to jeop­ar­dize their cur­rent jobs or pro­fes­sional sta­tus by speak­ing out. Moth­ers are still reg­u­larly judged neg­a­tively by our em­ploy­ers and so­ci­ety for charg­ing ahead pro­fes­sion­ally af­ter we have chil­dren.

It doesn’t take much to in­ter­nal­ize that sex­ism to con­vince our­selves that our kids are bet­ter off with a mother who doesn’t have a de­mand­ing job, which can lead us to be­ing more re­signed than fiery about be­ing passed over for a promotion or not called back for a job in­ter­view. Or maybe work­ing moth­ers are just plain tired.

But it’s also note­wor­thy to me that we’ve never had a high-pro­file case or na­tional dis­cus­sion about dis­crim­i­na­tion against moth­ers, one that be­gins to raise in the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness the no­tion that this kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion is wrong and truly harm­ful. Were there ever to be an Anita Hill-style hear­ing, com­plete with egre­gious de­tails, I be­lieve it would be a game changer.

If we haven’t heard much from moth­ers yet, I’m hope­ful we’ll hear more soon. Moth­ers with young chil­dren are run­ning for of­fice in higher num­bers than ever, chal­leng­ing the con­ven­tional wis­dom that vot­ers aren’t com­fort­able with elect­ing women with young kids at home. Some are even breast­feed­ing their ba­bies in their cam­paign ads, which is an un­mit­i­gated tri­umph for nor­mal­iz­ing nurs­ing. If the dam of si­lence ever starts to break, I be­lieve we’ll soon be­gin to hear a lot of moth­ers say­ing #Mom­sToo.


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