The Scarlet “M”
Before becoming a mother, I was familiar with the concept of the glass ceiling, but not the maternal wall. The “maternal wall” is a term used to describe the discrimination women experience in the workplace after having children. Sexism is pervasive and unless she’s been raised on a deserted island, every woman has experienced it in subtle or overt form. But I was still somehow brought up and ingrained with a belief that, even though it may not be fair to have to do so, if I worked extra hard or advocated strongly enough, I could be an equal – or close enough to equal – to feel valued and accomplished in my chosen career. Maybe I have been blessed with a disproportionate number of high-achieving feminist role models and supportive male colleagues, or maybe I was simply blessed with the naivete to believe that equality was within reach as time passed and more women blazed the trail ahead of me. Then I had a child. And the truth is I never felt truly hindered by my gender until I became a mother.
The responsibilities of parenthood change the game, dramatically. While parenting and competing in the workforce, sheer perseverance is no longer enough to level the playing field – especially without a substantial village of extended family and caregivers at one’s disposal. My role models failed to prepare me for how to be an equal player and a mother. This was not an oversight. It was unchartered territory when I was growing up. Eliminating the so-called “motherhood penalty” through dissolution of outdated patriarchal career standards and adoption of family-compatible workplace practices is the next frontier of the women’s movement. Until then, true equality will remain out of reach.
In order to relaunch my professional career with flexibility after a five year maternity leave, I took a step backward in pay and title. Truth be told, it was more like 2-3 steps. This is another way of saying that I hit the maternal wall. To me, the trade off for flexibility was worth it, but that any trade off was required was and continues to be frustrating and demoralizing. This is where, for the first time in my professional career, I became conscious of my gender and my status as a mother like a scarlet “M” on my forehead.
I’m not just imaging this. According to a 2014 special edition of The Shriver Report by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, “motherhood is now a greater predictor of inequality than gender.” Yes, you read that right, and it’s worth a double-take. Mothers across America – three-quarters of whom are in the paid workforce- experience wage and hiring discrimination, and subtle and overt bias on a daily basis. As Rowe-Finkbeiner reports, while most women without children make 90 cents to a man’s dollar, mothers make only 73 cents, single mothers make about 60 cents and mothers of color earn as little as 54 cents to a man’s dollar. Not only is this blatantly unfair, but it hurts families and our economy. Less money made means less money to spend.
The stark reality is that the glass ceiling cannot be touched, let alone shattered, until mothers are no longer blocked by the maternal wall.
This inequality hurts men as well. Fathers are held to sexist standards that force them to make sacrifices they don’t want to make – like taking limited to no paternity leave. Men and women alike find gender expectations amplified when they step into the role of father or mother.
What Can We Do About It?
Walls don’t come down easily. The maternal wall is an institutional barrier that will require new cultural norms to tear down. However, there are some strategies that can help. First, if they are willing to listen, I would encourage young women and men who have not yet become parents, to consider making early choices that could help lessen these potential setbacks. Think about negotiating for job flexibility before you even get pregnant or start your family. By negotiating for this before you really need it, you are in a more powerful position with nothing to lose. If your negotiation is unsuccessful, you have time to consider other options without feeling the gravitational pull of family obligations that often leads women to accept lesser pay or title in exchange for the flexibility they need.
Another suggestion would be to develop a skill that could lend itself to project-based work in the future. This is undoubtedly easier in certain jobs than others, but if possible, identify a skill or talent that you can develop enough that it could be portable and stand on its own on a contract or consulting basis. Down the road, that skill could give you the flexibility to keep working on a limited basis, if desired. There are several advantages to keeping your toe in the water doing some project-based work if at some point you choose to cut your work hours back. It can keep your networks, job leads and pay rate from languishing during a career break.
Keep in mind that these are just workarounds – strategies to empower parents to navigate a discriminatory culture while we endure the status quo. What we fundamentally need is a cultural shift, beginning with investments in workplace policies that support families – like flexible work hours and paid leave. These changes are not concessions, they are smart investments that have demonstrated the ability to increase productivity, boost economic gains, and help lower the wage gap between men and women. Removing the scarlet “M” and breaking down the maternal wall will benefit all of us.