Until now, such discrimination continued unquestioned because of
widely-held stereotypes about how women will or should act as mothers.
Recent research into “cognitive bias”— or unacknowledged
sets of stereotypes— reveals a number of stereotypes about
mothers that can adversely impact her perceived job performance
or qualifications for a job.
One of the most prevalent stereotypes is an association between
motherhood and a lack of competence. “We find that people
actually have underlying stereotypes in which they think of mothers
as very nice people, but they don’t think of them as competent
people,” says Professor Faye Crosby of the Psychology Department
at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and member of the Cognitive
Bias Working Group.
According to research conducted by members of the Cognitive Bias
Working Group and published in the Journal of Social Issues,
the link between incompetence and mothers is so strong that while
subjects rate businesswomen as highly competent as businessmen and
millionaires, the subjects rank “housewives” as minimally
competent as the “elderly,” “blind” and
“retarded” (the researchers used these stigmatized terms
intentionally). Another study in the same journal shows that when
men become fathers, they are held to lower standards of
time commitment and competence, but mothers are held to higher
standards of time commitment and must prove their competence in
the workplace repeatedly.
Another common stereotype is that mothers are assumed to be less
dependable than other workers. Stanley says of her former employer,
“I think their actions, body language [and] tone of voice
all suggested that I was no longer loyal to the company, that my
mind would now be in another place and not on my work.” Such
stereotypes about mothers’ commitment to work can result in
women being passed over for promotions or receiving lower pay or
lower quality assignments. Williams recalls the words of one Boston
lawyer who was given the work of a paralegal after her maternity
leave, “I had a baby, not a lobotomy.”
Fathers and people with aging relatives also face penalties for
taking time to care for their families. For men the initial stereotyping
is a little different. At first, men are not questioned on their
competence and are perceived to be better managers because they
are now “warm” or more personable as a result of being
fathers. But things change if fathers want to do more caregiving
work than is commonly expected of them.
In her book Unbending Gender, Williams discusses the employer’s
concept of an “ideal worker”— a person who is
available for long hours to work, largely because someone else attends
to the caregiving. According to Williams, a father who seeks more
time for caregiving may be “flunking the ideal worker test.
He may be seen as a less effective man and even a less effective
father, because fatherhood is very much intertwined with being a
good provider.” The stereotype here is that fathers do not
provide care. For example, in the caregiver discrimination case
of Knussman v. Maryland, Knussman’s supervisor told
him that his wife would have to be “in a coma or dead”
for a man to qualify as the primary caregiver, and then denied him
leave to care for his wife and newborn daughter.
“The Maternal Wall basically affects anybody who plays the
role traditionally played by moms. If a man … wants to take
several months parental leave or work a flexible schedule, he may
experience more acute gender bias than the mother,” says Williams.
“One of the reasons it’s so hard for moms to get dads
to play an equal role [at home] is because of the fierce hostility
[fathers] face in the workplace.”
Williams hypothesizes that the one of the reasons that some mothers
leave the workforce and “opt out” has to do with the
constraints on fathers. If fathers experience hostility for doing
more caregiving work, then mothers are forced to pick up the slack.
Says Williams, “[Women’s] partners feel that there is
no way that they could back out without just triggering acute stigma.”
In this way, the couple is forced into the ideal worker norm.
New research recently published by Hunter College sociologist Pamela
Stone looks deeper into professional mothers’ decisions to
leave the workforce and finds that approximately 90% of the subjects
“expressed a moderate to high degree of ambivalence”
about leaving their jobs. The study finds that it is the workplace
factors that carry the biggest weight in their decisions, and then
the flexibility of their partners.
“Many women name specific workplace conditions that led them
to quit,” comments Williams regarding this research. “Sometimes
that was the unavailability of part-time work, sometimes it was
the stigma associated with part-time [work], sometimes it was the
hostility towards women once they had children.” When such
work conditions are combined with a partner who is inflexible in
his work as well, then work becomes an all or nothing proposition.
“That tends to mean that one partner, almost invariably the
man, will stay on the 50 to 60 hour a week fast track, at which
point his partner has very little option but to take very poor quality
part-time work or leave the workforce,” notes Williams.
Such research supports Williams’ hypothesis that professional
women are “opting out” of the workforce because of Maternal
Wall discrimination. “One of the reasons that moms end up
deciding that the only feasible solution is to sequence [or interrupt
their careers] is because they themselves have met Maternal Wall
bias and are sick of it,” Williams suggests. For Stanley,
the former human resources manager, the hostility she experienced
at work during her pregnancy certainly contributed to her decision
to stay at home. “The work itself wasn’t so bad, but
the environment was more than I wanted to handle. I couldn’t
imagine coming home to my child in the moods this type of treatment
brought on,” she says.
In the face of discrimination and hostile work environments, some
mothers leave the workforce. Clarke, who worked in finance, describes
the vicious cycle she saw created: “A lot of women do leave,
and so that’s the assumption that is what every woman is going
to do…so you’re passed over for a promotion or there’s
a pay differential.”
The blame, though, lies less with individual women’s choices
and more with our lack of understanding and acknowledgment that
gender discrimination is a legitimate source of distress for employed
mothers, stay-at-home mothers, and fathers. Many women, upon becoming
mothers, do want cut back hours, not travel, or spend more time
with their children. But that does not constitute a rationale for
assuming that all mothers will or want to do these things. “Employers
will try to say that they are trying to prevent problems down the
road…but it’s still illegal,” says Camacho, who
experienced discrimination during her job interview.