The Maternal Wall—This Is Why Working Moms Struggle to Earn More

Updated 04/26/18

Although Equal Pay Day is on April 10, we're continuing the conversation all month long on MyDomaine.

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The first time I discovered that I wasn't getting paid my worth was during a retail gig in my early 20s. I had the responsibilities and hours of a full-time manager but wasn’t getting the paycheck or the benefits that came with the role. It was actually during an off-the-clock chat with a male colleague (who I also considered a trusted friend outside of work) when I found out that we weren’t getting paid equally. The conversation was over 15 years ago, and while I can't recall exactly who brought the topic up first, we were comfortable enough to talk openly about the company's recent round of raises.

I remember him expressing how unfair it was that he was earning more than me—despite the fact that I was considered higher on the company ladder.

It wasn't until I sat down to write this story—part of MyDomaine's monthlong spotlight on —that I remembered that job from so long ago. When my then-co-worker brought our pay gap to light, I approached my boss for a raise and full-time benefits but was denied: There were technicalities, he said. I quit not long after and found a higher-paying position as an administrative assistant, graduated from college, began my career as a copywriter, and eventually turned my "" as a freelance writer and editor into my main gig.

Like many other parents, motherhood has changed the way I approach my career.

I'm keenly aware that women continue to face inequality in the workplace, particularly when they choose to have a family. Dubbed the "," it's the concept that employers avoid hiring or promoting mothers based on the perception that she’ll be less committed to her job due to family responsibilities.

As a self-employed writer since before I had kids, I haven't had to face the maternal wall—but that's not to say that my decision to pursue the freelance life wasn't a pre-emptive strike against everything the concept entails. And as I write this piece, I realize that I'm among the women who Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In.

When it came to weighing a flexible and creative job versus the 9-to-5 lifestyle, coupled with my desire to stay at home with my kids while still earning an income, the choice was clear. But in advancing my career on my own terms (while enjoying the ability to set my own hours and spend time with my children), I've also accepted the fact that I'm losing out on benefits like employer-matched 401k contributions, paid maternity leave, and sick pay.

That's why I reached out to Joan Williams, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law who helped popularize the term "maternal wall." The founding director of the tells me that her own career took a frustrating turn after she had kids.

Williams was working as an environmental lawyer when she had her first child. "I was stunned at how difficult it was, even as a tenured law professor," she tells MyDomaine. " Even so, after my second baby, I almost quit… I thought, Boy, I had it a lot easier than most mothers in this economy and it’s almost impossible for me, so I can only imagine how impossible it is for them. So I said, 'Let’s change conditions for mothers.'"

Her organization works toward improved gender and racial equality in the workplace and higher education by empowering employees who strive for better work/life balance. This includes supporting pregnant and breastfeeding students and workers, helping companies break the chain of caregiver discrimination, and creating programs that support women leaders, to name just a few initiatives.

Here, she further unpacks the maternal wall concept, along with what we can do to battle discrimination against mothers in the workplace.

What Does the "Maternal Wall" Really Mean?

"The workplace was designed around the ideal worker who takes no time off for childbearing or childrearing and works for 40 years full-time without a break," says Williams. "That is a model that works perfectly for people without children and for people married to homemakers. It works quite poorly for mothers and fathers who want to be involved in the daily care of their children." 

That's why we need to redefine the American workplace to help people achieve their career and family goals "without pitting them against each other," says Williams.

With that in mind, the maternal wall theory maintains that working mothers are seen "in a haze of femininity, assuming they will be empathetic, emotional, gentle, nonaggressive—that is, not very good at business," Williams previously wrote in . And yet if those women "remain tough, cool, emphatic, and committed to their jobs, colleagues may indict them for being insufficiently maternal." Simply put, it seems as if working mothers just can't win, says Williams.

This stereotyping can also affect fathers. Williams goes on to explain one well-intentioned manager who unintentionally reinforced long-held "traditional" gender roles upon a couple who worked under him. While the new mother was sent home at 5:30 p.m. to take care of her child, the manager assigned extra work to her husband, requiring him to spend longer hours at the office.

Why Workplaces Need to Catch Up

One of the problems, Williams explains, is that the modern workplace hasn't caught up with today's more progressive workers. "Workplaces have not changed; families have. It's slightly more common to have the mother 'ideal worker' and the father as the person who 'takes the hit'" in his career, she says, while noting that this applies to a small minority.

I asked my own mother—who raised five children—how workplace discrimination affected our family. Though she was paid well and had a generous employer, she says she quit her job because of the hardships that many two-income households face, like juggling work schedules with daycare drop-offs and after-school pick-ups. In fact, it was my dad who faced more pushback in his career when he requested more time off for family. He'd only been allowed one week off after my mom gave birth to two of my brothers—anything more was frowned upon at the time.

Having paid paternity leave would have definitely increased their quality of life and lessened some burdens on her, she says.

My family is fortunate: In addition to enjoying good healthcare, my husband also received two months of paid paternity leave and was as he needed. (His company also has an unlimited paid time off policy.) My move to not return to a traditional workforce is one afforded to me by a unique career path and a partner who's supportive, financially and otherwise: I never would have made the freelance switch if I didn't have his health insurance as a safety net, for example.

I know not everyone is so lucky, and Williams agrees. "Basically, the U.S. is way out of the loop. Every other advanced industrial country has , and that's just the beginning," she says. "We need flexible work schedules, we need to end the intense stigmatizing of part-time work, we need better childcare. We need so much, sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin."

has shown that unpaid maternity leave is a common reason that women quit their jobs after giving birth to their first child, thus setting them on a course to throughout their career. Which leads us to the next topic: How workplaces can take a cue from modern families who are straying away from the traditional division of labor.

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What Workplaces Can Learn From Millennial Parents

"The one way of light is that there is a group of millennial men who believe that being a good father involves daily care of their children, and that is a really big change," Williams says. "They are taking leave and putting their money where their mouths are in a way that mothers have always done, but men of my generation never did."

My husband and I might be considered an example of this new generation who strive to share parenting responsibilities equally. He doesn't consider caring for our kids as "," and we generally eschew certain duties simply because they're stereotypically assigned by gender.

There's no right or wrong way to parent—this is simply the approach that works best for us, just as the "traditional" approach might be a better fit for other families.

How to Address Discrimination Against Working Mothers

So how can we empower parents in the workplace? If you're a manager, Williams suggests offering flexibility: "Give [your employees] the respect they deserve and tell them as long as they get their work done, [you] don't care where and when [they] do it," she says.

It's also important to tell mothers and fathers that they're expected to take their full parental leave and that opting out will not be seen as a signal that they're more committed to the job, says Williams.

And if you hear someone speaking negatively about a mother, take the time to defend her, Williams says. For example, if a co-worker judges another colleague's decision to attend to family responsibilities, you can point out all of the other instances when that working parent fulfilled their duties at the office.

My hope is that whenever I'm at a coffee shop while baby-wearing and answering emails on my laptop, it might help to redefine working motherhood in the eyes of a future parent—or anyone else, for that matter. Perhaps they won't look at me with judgmental eyes; instead, they'll see a mother who's as passionate about her job as she is about her children.

And thanks to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' that salary history cannot be used as a justification to pay women less than men for the same work, we're finally inching closer to eliminating the gender and racial pay gap for the next generation. I'm hoping that perhaps by the time my daughter and son are grown, the discussion won't be who makes more than the other—it'll be who's more passionate about their job.

To find out more ways to support parents in the workplace, check out the Center for WorkLife Law's ; then read up on how one mother approaches her role as the family breadwinner.

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