Who's Afraid of the "M" Word?

Jan 24, 2019

By Carol Morrison

Baseball, motherhood and apple pie—which of these bastions of Americana might be tantamount to a curse in some U.S. workplaces? It’s the “M” word, for maternity and motherhood.

Various experts argue that there’s a prejudice against motherhood that extends across organizational levels and genders in U.S. businesses. Taking cues from the concept of the “glass ceiling,” this bias has been called “the maternal wall.” Joan Williams, director of the American University Washington College of Law’s WorkLife Law Program, notes that there’s a workplace perception that women who are mothers are somehow less competent, capable and reliable than women without children or than men.

Such stereotyping can lead managers to withhold important assignments because they assume that a mother wouldn’t undertake a project requiring long work hours or travel. Colleagues may connect motherhood with traits like gentleness and warmth—attributes that don’t equate to business acumen. On the other hand, fatherhood doesn’t seem to have the same connotations. Cornell University researchers Shelley Correll and Stephen Benard, who studied hiring decision-makers, found that fathers not only were likely to be offered higher starting salaries than any other group, but they were also most likely to be promoted.

Correll and Benard created a hiring scenario that differentiated candidates by gender and parenthood. Although their study participants were undergraduates, their findings echoed earlier research by Williams and others. Study participants were less likely to hire mothers and, if they did hire them, proffered starting salaries averaged about $11,000 less than salaries offered to childless female candidates (“Mothers Offered,” 2005). In general, researchers have found that mothers earn about 60% of what fathers earn (Crosby, Williams & Biernat, 2004).

Correll’s and Benard’s findings also support research by Ohio State University’s Kathleen Fuegen and colleagues, who studied hiring decisions influenced by parenthood. Fuegen’s research used undergraduates from two universities in different parts of the U.S. to simulate hiring scenarios. The researchers found that applicants who were mothers were judged more harshly and were less likely to be hired, while applicants who were fathers were held to more lenient performance standards. Feugen’s study includes a review of literature supporting the notion that mothers encounter discrimination in the workplace.

For businesses, the stereotyping of mothers can spell trouble in the form of legal vulnerability. American University’s WorkLife Law Program counts more than 40 discrimination cases involving employees (mostly mothers) who were caregivers, noting that many of the cases ended in sizeable financial settlements. More legal outcomes like these seem likely in the wake of an April 2005 case (Back v. Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District) in which a mother employed by a New York school was denied tenure because of her family commitments. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that motherhood stereotyping constituted gender discrimination (Euben, 2005; Greenwald, 2004). With about 59% of women active in the U.S. labor force and with increasing numbers of women pursuing higher education, businesses can expect to have a growing proportion of mothers in their skilled workforces.

For employers, the good news is that legal liability arising from discrimination against employees who are mothers is an avoidable threat. As with many workplace discrimination issues, stereotyping of mothers can first be addressed through education. HR professionals can take steps to include information on appropriate workplace treatment of mothers—and of all caregivers—in companies’ discrimination training programs (Williams, 2005). Offering special workshops for managers (Euben, 2005) may be a useful strategy, helping to guard against the possibility of unconscious bias.

Companies can also review their policies to ensure that formal and fair processes are in place pertaining to employees who are parents or caregivers. A thorough examination of this sort should go beyond maternity leave to include hiring policies and procedures and rules governing workplace absences. Firms can also look at their past promotion decisions. In the development area, businesses can assess how they might provide mothers (or other family caregivers) with viable routes to transition out of and back into the workforce during different career stages.

Organizations should take a look at their own structures, too. “When people in power hold stereotypes, they can influence organizational and societal structures that, in turn, shape the lives of many individuals,” said Williams and her colleagues in a 2004 Journal of Social Issues article. By instituting greater flexibility in the ways jobs are accomplished, companies might avoid charges of discrimination against mothers even as they improve recruitment, retention and work/life balance.

Indeed, some organizations have come to view flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting and flexible scheduling as sound planning strategies for the whole workforce (Hansen, 2005). By taking advantage of the contributions that all employees bring to today’s workplace, organizations can simultaneously become more balanced and efficient.

Documents used in the preparation of this article include:
Crosby, Faye J., Joan C. Williams and Monica Biernat. “The Maternal Wall.” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 60, No. 4, 2004, pp. 675-682.

Euben, Donna. “Working Mothers and Gender Discrimination.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. ProQuest. May 27, 2005, p. B12.

Fuegen, Kathleen, et al. “Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace: How Gender and Parental Status Influence Judgments of Job-Related Competence.” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 60, No. 4, 2004, pp. 737-754.

“For Fifth Year, BLS Finds Smaller Share of Women at Work.” Bulletin to Management, June 7, 2005, p. 183.

Greenwald, Judy. “Working Mother Wins Gender Bias Ruling.” Business Insurance. ProQuest. April 26, 2004, pp. 4-5.

Hansen, Kylie. “Mum’s the Word.” Intheblack. ProQuest. June 2005, pp. 32-37.
“Mothers Offered Fewer Jobs and Lower Salaries.” IOMA’s Report on Salary Surveys, September 2005, p. 8.

“Two New Studies Look at Mothers – and Smokers – in the Workplace.” . July 27, 2005.

Williams, Joan C. “The Maternal Wall.” Harvard Business Review, October 1, 2004, pp. 26, 28.

Wirt, John, et al. The Condition of Education 2004. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, June 2004.

About the Author(s)

Carol Morrison is with the Institute for Corporate Productivity.  For more information, visit www.i4cp.com.