Maternal bias starts early: as soon as a woman gets engaged, the assumption is made that she is going to want to start having children. Even the women who have decided against having children are penalized, as the assumption has already been made. All genders fall into bias traps, but maternal bias towards women can intensify their negative experiences within the workplace, and add to the structural oppression most working women already face. As a result of this, mothers are given fewer opportunities. It has been documented that mothers already in a job role are 50% less likely to be promoted as a result of this assumption, and are offered an average of $11,000 less in salary if applying for a new job.
In a recent article published in The Riveter, writer Hannah Fairbanks states that “Women lose an average of four per cent of hourly earnings for each child they have. This stems from assumptions by colleagues and superiors that being mothers makes them less able to perform and less dedicated to their position”. Motherhood triggers the assumption that women are less committed to progressing in their career. As a result of this, women aren’t offered as many opportunities in the workplace compared to their ‘single’ colleagues, and so are penalized in terms of growth and promotional encouragement. In a video hosted by Lean In entitled, What is Maternal Bias? host Mary Noble-Tolla shares with her audience the notion that because society assumes mothers are less committed, they are more likely to be penalized for making minor mistakes or oversights.
Noble-Tolla quoted a study that showed that if a woman was to add the job title Parent Teacher Association coordinator to their resume, they are 79% less likely to be hired. Maternal bias is the strongest kind of gender bias, and bias against parents even applies to fathers, as studies have shown that fathers who take time off for family-related events receive a lower performance rating and experience steeper reductions in future earnings compared to others. According to Lean In, if fathers were to take more time off for their families, then women would feel less judgement when doing the same. It has also been documented that workplaces offering a longer maternity and paternity leave have a happier and more productive workforce, compared to those that don’t.
- In your next team meeting or all hands. Ask folks to reflect on the current benefits and policies outlined for parents. Have an open conversation about planning for the future, not just where children are concerned but all dependents e.g. disabled or elderly parents. Create space for folks to open up about what their dealing with at home.
- Re-framing constructive feedback through the lens of bias. Think of any conversations you have overheard, or been a part of, at work that discussed maternal leave, paternal leave or anyone who was recently engaged, married or expecting children. What assumptions were made in that conversation?
- In your next candidate evaluation written response. Consider how you think about and talk about people on your team who are engaged, married, expecting children or existing parents. In what ways do you judge their performance or make assumptions about their ambitions differently to the rest of the team?
New Habits to Make a Difference
- Start a new past time in your team where you share headlines you find in the news that are founded on negative assumptions about women and parenthood.
- Expand the definition of “family” within your community: get everyone talking about who in their life depends on them from pets to plants to parents.
- Challenge assumption based narratives about women and engagement or women and marriage or even women and children wherever you see them within books, magazines and TV shows – spark conversations with your friends and family about maternal bias and why it continues to exist.