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The Motherhood Penalty

Millennial workers' push for flexible jobs could help parents and working moms

Bryony Angell

Published on: May 05, 2015

Two women at a computer

Will we one day be thanking the Millennial generation for transforming the culture around work/life balance? If current trends hold, the same gripe that Generation Xers and their predecessors have expressed about their younger counterparts’ so-called sense of entitlement could soon turn to gratitude.

In an already disadvantageous work environment for families, (the United States is one of four countries in the world which offer no paid parental leave), working mothers especially are put under the microscope by their employers. According to Shelley Correll and Anna Steffeney, who spoke last week to a large crowd at “The Motherhood Penalty” lecture at Seattle’s Town Hall (hosted by the Women’s Funding Alliance), Millennial women and men could profoundly impact the current workplace culture, to the benefit of all workers.

How? To understand the way in which things are changing, we first need to grasp where we are and how we got here, said Correll, professor and director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Studies, and Steffeney, a former IT executive and founder of LeaveLogic (a firm assisting companies implementing maternity leave benefits).

The cultural stereotype of the ideal mother ― expected to prioritize family above all else ― runs counter to the stereotype of the ideal worker ― expected to put work above all else. That stereotype is not widely imposed upon working fathers, nor on working lesbian moms, the way it is on straight working mothers, said Correll, who is the author of the 2011 study “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” and whose research features prominently in Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed.

Good mom vs. good worker 

Working mothers are perceived by their employers as less dedicated and reliable, and they earn 5–7 percent less in wages per child than their childless female counterparts, according to Correll’s research. Even working mothers who try to “work their way out of it” by working longer hours are penalized. Such workaholic mothers are considered by their co-workers to be “cold and less likeable,” and worse, bad mothers.

State and federally supported child care and paid family leave are the quickest ways to improve workplace conditions for families at all socioeconomic levels and evolve cultural attitudes away from penalizing mothers, Correll said. In this way, policy can drive cultural shifts.

Bottom-up works, too. Steffeney’s approach takes on companies one at a time. Her own experience utilizing two drastically different family leave models ― she delivered her first son in Germany and her second in the United States ― shaped her understanding of just how behind the U.S. is when it comes to policies and benefits for working families.

Because the U.S. does not mandate paid leave benefits, Steffeney decided to target pushing for family leave benefits within major companies as a way to retain talent. Her female peers in tech were choosing not to return to work when they became parents, or else choosing not become parents at all. She was bothered by these reduced choices, forcing what seemed like extreme responses to working life.

Correll and Steffeney both argue that these responses by professional women ― abandon their jobs or elect not to become mothers ― are happening because of the latent distrust of mothers by employers. Working mothers and their childless female co-workers are making rational decisions given the situation, the researchers say.

But mothers, and motherhood, are not the problem, Correll and Steffeney emphasize; work is the problem. Until work and those who run work places recognizes that everyone, not just mothers, has responsibilities outside of the job, change is going to be slow to come.

This is where Millennials enter the picture.

Pushing for change

Millennials want (and, increasingly, expect) greater work/life balance, more flexible work hours and autonomy, and greater worksite accommodations. And their demographic demands could effect changes in the workplace for the rest of their colleagues: Companies will have to change to retain their best workers.

Steffeney focuses on three areas for action: Company policy, accommodation, and return to work. For instance, she said, when Google increased company maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, it saw a 50 percent drop in the attrition of those female employees. This company policy paved the way for an easier return to work, accomplishing two of Steffeney’s action items.

National legislation currently on the table includes the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. The former would prevent employer retaliation for workers who inquire about workplace discrepancies, and applies to anyone in the work force, not just women. The FAMILY Act provides a shared insurance structure to workers and employers for providing income to workers on family leave.

Both Millennial women and their older counterparts, whose children are grown, flocked to Town Hall to hear about the motherhood penalty and proposed solutions. During the question-and-answer session, many of the women asking questions confided that they were not yet mothers. Where were the actual mothers of school age children? I wondered. As a working mother myself, I immediately realized the answer ― they were home taking care of the kids after a long day at work!

The attendees I interviewed had a range of opinions.  

Marjorie, a 60-something nurse Ph.D., lecturer, and mother of a 35-year-old daughter, wondered which industries had the worst discrimination. She personally found her career in nursing ― with a larger percentage of women represented ― to be a supportive place for working mothers.

Allie, a childless 20-something professional from Seattle, was concerned about the work culture that rewards overworking, and wondered how she would ever navigate that peer pressure when she chose to start a family. As she raced off to meet her Uber driver, Allie represented the perfect bridge to a (hopefully) new frontier: She is the future of working parents, a Millennial already thinking about effecting change and living for a future of greater convenience and efficiency; a woman already strategizing about how to make work work for her when she chooses to start a family.

The takeaway

”We will not solve this by policy alone,” Correll said. “The next generation wants a different work life, and [society] has to accommodate that.”

What can you do now?

At work:

  • Strength is in numbers. Approach HR as a group with suggestions for solutions where you see disadvantages.
  • If you are a working mother, share your experience with other expectant mothers at your place of work, in the spirit of an apprenticeship or mentorship.
  • Support working fathers taking paternity leave if it is offered. Men need to feel it is not a stigma to take paid leave.  
  • The more men are involved in the conversation, the more family leave is generalized as a universal issue, not a mother issue.
  • Normalize being a parent at work ― don’t feel you need to conceal your family commitments.  
  • Tell your management you’re willing to take on high-visibility work (or not ― that’s OK, too). The more open the communication, the more clear the expectations.
  • Speak up early if there are going to be tenant improvements at your place of work, and advocate for lactation or “mom” room. Often these accommodations are easily added, but no one asks.
  • If you’re a man, speak opening about taking time off to spend time with family.  
  • Educate your employer about the law ― some smaller employers are unaware of the Family and Medical Leave Act!

At home:

  • Support men staying home to take care of children if it makes economic and/or family sense. More and more men are choosing to do this, making the decision more mainstream.
  • Support policy change that brings universal, low-cost, high-quality childcare for all families. The better cared for and educated our children are, the more we all benefit. The organization MomsRising advocates for policy, work-place and cultural change around maternity/paternity leave, flexible work, healthcare, paid sick days, and equal wages.

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