Friday, August 18, 2017

The maternal wall

This is my third post about women in leadership and the biases women have to encounter at work which make it hard for women to reach a leadership position.  This post is about the maternal wall.  When I first heard the term "maternal wall", the first thing that came to mind was another metaphor "glass ceiling" which also describes an invisible barrier through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them.  In this case, the term glass ceiling also applies to ethnic minorities, who also find it difficult to secure leadership positions in the workforce.  In the case of the maternal wall, women with children encounter assumptions that they are no loner committed or competent at work - or that they shouldn't be.

When I had both my children I was living in Holland.  Although people's views of Holland are that it is a modern, forward looking country, 27 years ago when I had my son many people were shocked that I decided to return to work when he was 6 months old.  People would say to me, "You're going back to work?".  Some of the kinder people added another word to this:  "Already?"  At that time in Holland maternity leave was 16 weeks.  As my son was born in February, this meant I was due to return to work right as the schools were breaking up for the summer, so I postponed this return until the new school year.  At that point, an emergency appendectomy, followed by peritonitis and septicaemia meant that I could not return until October, by which time my son was actually 8 months old.   I returned to part-time work, and my husband also took parental leave - he was the first person in his company ever to do this.  Holland was a country where in the early 1990s women with children stayed home - in fact children were sent home from school to eat lunch at home, so having a parent at home was the only option.  Even though I worked for an international company, when I returned to work I was definitely seen as less committed to my career.  If I had chosen to stop work at this point, I very much doubt I would have been re-hired, and would probably not be an international educator today.

In the video Joan Williams talks about how the assumption that women can't be committed both as workers and mothers has a huge impact on women's careers.  Statistics show that women with children are 79% less likely to be hired and only half as likely to be promoted.  At one point, when my son was young, I was forced to leave a faculty meeting that had run over its time, in order to collect my son from his daycare before it closed.  The following day I received an email from the head of school saying he noticed I left the meeting "early" and wondered what was wrong.  Williams points out that this is typical:  women with children are actually held to higher performance and punctuality standards than women without children.  And when women do perform well, they are often judged as being "not maternal enough".

Women with children are often not offered new assignments or promotions because it is assumed that they don't have the time or the inclination for extra work.  Even younger women, who do not have children, report that they are being passed over for promotions because it is assumed that they will eventually have children.

Williams has the following strategies for dealing with the maternal wall bias.

  • Voice your commitment when you return from maternity leave
  • If you need to be out of the office, be explicit about your reasons - otherwise people will assume you are taking time off because of your children.
  • Senior women need to set an example that it is acceptable for people to spend time with their families
  • Don't hold yourself to unrealistic standards - focus on what you are doing well and stop judging yourself
Here's the third video.  Have you experienced the maternal wall bias?  What have you done to show you are committed to your work as well as your family?

Photo Credit: demandaj Flickr via Compfight cc

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