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“Go Home!”

When discrimination forces moms out of a job

By Kimberly Tso

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Workplace discrimination based on widely-held stereotypes about how women will or should act as mothers has continued unquestioned— until now.
You 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,” says Williams.

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 the meetings.”

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 the baby.”

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.”

mom myths: nice, but not competent

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