The biases you are likely to face in your pursuit of career advancement as a mother with children still at home are rooted in a pervasive American assumption that mothers should be committed to their children without restraint or reservation, that children’s emotional health and academic achievement depend on their mothers being available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Never mind the time a father, relative, friend, or trained caregiver spends with a child; it is a mother’s time that is critical and irreplaceable.
We will say a word later as to why this ideology of intensive mothering is just that, an ideology unsupported by evidence or experience. For the moment, however, the important point is that only 16 percent of Americans believe a mother should work full-time outside of the home. Inevitably, therefore, as a mother pursuing a full-time career — and desiring to succeed at it — you are going to encounter biases simply because you are a mother.
Certain of these biases are overt and hostile. A 2005 study found mothers were 79 percent less likely to be hired, 100 percent less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance standards than women without children. Discriminatory biases of this sort may very well rise to a level that calls for legal action, so if you experience them keep this in mind.
Workplace biases against you because you are a mother can also be wrapped in apparently benevolent behavior: you may be “excused” from night meetings, not assigned to projects requiring travel, encouraged to leave work early or come in late, and held to lower performance standards than your colleagues. But such treatment is anything but benevolent. When you are effectively taken out of the rough and tumble of the career advancement game, you are going to lose the chance to “win” at that game, and you are being discriminated against, pure and simple.
Biases against you as a mother can also show up as “tests” of your career commitment. Andie joined her current law firm when our daughter was two years old. A partner who she was working with on a client project started leaving voicemail messages, asking in a condescending tone to meet at 5 p.m. if she would “still be around.” Andie made it a point never to be available at 5:00, but she always offered to talk with him by phone that same night any time after 6 p.m. or to meet personally with him any time after 6 a.m. the next morning. He never took her up on any of her suggested meeting times. He wasn’t interested in meeting, only in demonstrating his commitment and Andie’s assumed lack of it.
When you behave like a man – work hard at your career and raise children at the same time – you can also encounter agentic biases of the sort we discussed in an earlier blog post. Demonstrating your commitment to your career through strong agentic behavior is likely to win you respect as competent and engaged, but it is also likely to trigger a backlash: isolation, exclusion from valuable opportunities, hostile and overly critical evaluations, an obvious lack of support and resources, and a reputation as a bad mother.
Apart from these sorts of motherhood biases, you are also likely to have to contend with the issue of guilt. You will continuously be told, subtly and not so subtly, you should be spending more time with your child, you have your priorities wrong, and you are depriving your child of what she or he needs most: a mother’s attention and presence. It is virtually impossible to be immersed in this ideological sea without swallowing some of the salt water. If you find yourself in this situation – wanting to stick with your career but worried that you are doing so to the detriment of your children – keep in mind that no study has ever found that a mother’s work outside her home has had an adverse effect on her children’s well-being. Indeed, Kathleen McGinn, a professor at Harvard Business School, recently found that women whose mothers had worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves and hold supervisory responsibilities than women whose mothers stayed at home full time; moreover, they earn 23 percent higher wages. She also found that the men raised by such mothers were no less likely to have successful careers than other men. McGinn summed up her research with this comment: there is “a lot of parental guilt about having both parents working outside the home. But what this research says to us is that [by doing so] you’re … helping your kids.”
In these introductory posts, we have outlined the five key gender biases against women pursuing careers – negative, benevolent, agentic, self-limiting, and motherhood. In our future blog posts we will address how you can avoid or overcome these biases and tackle topical subjects as they arise.