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.)
In a case in Colorado, a woman was told openly that she was passed over for a promotion because it was thought that she wouldn’t want to relocate or work the 50 to 60 hours a week the promotion required. She was told it was because she “had a full-time job at home with her children.” Her company made this determination without consulting her to find out what she actually wanted. She won her case, too.
“Bias against mothers is one of the strongest forms of bias against women,” said Liz Morris, the deputy director of the Center for Worklife Law, a research and advocacy group that focuses on gender and racial equality in the workplace. “I think that there’s a lot of people who would agree that sexual harassment or discrimination in general are wrong who may discriminate against mothers or may accept discrimination against themselves in a way that’s really harmful.”
While mothers themselves are not a protected class of workers, discriminating against someone because of their pregnancy is considered a form of gender discrimination, and bias against mothers because of their caregiving needs can also be classified as a form of family-responsibilities discrimination.
Women can file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for both of these forms of discrimination, and if a case can’t be resolved through mediation and out-of-court settlements, both the E.E.O.C. and the plaintiff have the right to sue in federal court.
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. If she was offered the job, she was offered $11,000 less than a childless female candidate. (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. In The Upshot, 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 work force.
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. I t 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. We are living in unprecedented times for women raising their voices, loudly. 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 breast-feeding 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.