aren’t planning to have another baby, are you?”
the interviewer asked Pam Camacho of Portland, Oregon. Camacho was
interviewing for a full-time position with a local non-profit after
working part-time for many years while raising her family. She didn’t
expect to face discrimination because she was a mother.
That comment, as well as others questioning her experience with
paid employment, made her think something was amiss. “They
assumed that because I was a mother that I could not do the job,
that I could not devote full time to the work, ” Camacho recalls.
“It didn’t even hit me that all this was discrimination.
When you are in the middle of things, you don’t always recognize
it.” After the interview, she complained to the supervising
agency, which reprimanded the interviewers but never fired them.
Several hundred suits of “caregiver discrimination”
have been filed since 2000, and in more than 160 cases plaintiffs
have gained some compensation for the discrimination against them,
many for more than $500,000 and some in the millions, according
to Joan Williams, Professor of Law and Director of the Program of
Worklife Law at American University Washington College of Law. Williams
is leading the challenge against “The Maternal Wall”—
the discrimination that mothers face for their caregiving responsibilities.
“This is one of the major forms of gender discrimination in
the country that has only been recognized in the past year,”
The Maternal Wall
Job discrimination against mothers resembles other forms of race
and gender discrimination in that mothers experience different employment
terms than other workers and many must endure workplace comments
and behaviors that are openly hostile and unwelcoming. Even without
words, Sarah Clarke (real name withheld) got her employer’s
message loud and clear. Working in the male-dominated field of finance,
Clarke recalls, “When I went on maternity leave, I said I
wanted to work from home [during my leave]…[but] they wouldn’t
allow me to call into meetings. And when I came back to work, I
didn’t have a desk.”
Elizabeth Stanley (real name withheld) received a similar cold
shoulder from her employer. “Once I got pregnant, one of the
owners basically ignored me,” she says. “I tried to
talk with the COO about my maternity leave and subsequent return
to work, but she always managed to find a way to cancel or postpone
Employers sometimes make assumptions how women will behave upon
becoming mothers. Stanley, who worked as a human resources manager
at the time, recalled that “if a woman came in who was obviously
pregnant or volunteered that she was pregnant, the owners would
automatically disqualify her [for the job]. It didn’t matter
what her qualifications were or what her plans were after she had
Some mothers are also finding it difficult to get back into the
workforce after taking some time out. Despite good job performance,
impressive education credentials, and clear qualifications, Clarke
has not gotten past the interview stage for almost three years.
“I can’t get a job. Either I’m a bad interviewer
or something else is going on,” she says.
To Williams, these women’s experiences are clear patterns
of discrimination that are rooted in outdated stereotypes about
mothers. “Maternal Wall stereotyping is triggered whenever
motherhood becomes salient [or] jumps out at you,” explains
Williams. “[It happens] sometimes when women get pregnant,
when they return from maternity leave, when a woman has a second
child, or when she tries to use flex time.”