The Motherhood Penalty

“It was my idea, my work, my project,” Joanne seethed. “You’re a Mom,” I said.

This morning she took her 5 AM shower, woke up Bonnie, her little daughter, got down to the kitchen in time for breakfast, drove her to school, crawled further through the knotted traffic, and arrived at the company long before her peers. Excited. The kickoff of her first major, high-visibility project.

A project that her boss assigned to Stephen.

“He said what?”
“Your boss. Things like ‘you did a good job, we’ll take it from here?” I mimicked in a rough voice. Joanne nodded slowly.
“That’s when you know you’re screwed,” I said. “They’re really nice to you at first, you know, a pat on the back and the ‘you did a good job here’ cliché. Then bang!”
“‘We’ll take it from here,’” she shuddered.
“You’re dropped from high-visibility projects,” I counted on my fingers, “opportunities start drying up, you continually get passed over for promotion, you don’t get the next raise. They’re going to isolate you.”

We’re waiting for Bonnie. After the incident, Joanne put on her ‘everythings great’ smile, took the day off, and joined me for school pick-up. The alley is jammed with those giant SUVs they all drove these days.

“Because I’m a woman, huh?” she bristled.
“And a Mom. Men assume that women cannot possibly live up to expectations of professional dedication. ‘She will be pregnant, go on maternity, take a lot of leaves, she will be more preoccupied with her kids,’ I grimaced. “Women are supposed to be less committed to their work.”
“So what’s my career,” she raged, “more of a hobby?”
“No one ever says this, but if you are anything other than a straight white male, preferably with an apparent fraternity-house attitude, you are not going to fit in.”
“Not ‘one of the guys,’ huh?” Joanne muttered.
“You’re not the ‘safe’ choice. Our oversimplified stereotype holds that men are professional achievers, decisive and driven, and women are sensitive and caregivers. Therefore men candidates represent the ‘safer’ choice for leadership roles.”
“My boss purely presumed I’m not going to be able to cut it,” she said biting her lip.
“Women’s competencies and commitment are always questioned,” I nodded. “They have to prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do.”
“But there’s no doubt that I have the skills to lead the project!” she revolted, a vein pulsing on her forehead. “It was my idea, my work, my strategy! I can lead it.”
“Of course, you have the competence. But you’re a woman.“
“And a Mom,” she finished lamely. “Not the safe choice.”
“Women are repeatedly told that they have to choose. The assumption is that they cannot be committed to both their families and careers.”

Moms are passing by strutting into the school. Eyes fixed on the mobile phones as if waiting for vital information. Busy. Frantic. Our work culture values complete dedication.

“But we all declare that people should be promoted for their competence and skill and not for gender or other biases,” she muttered.
“All civilized companies claim that sexism is a thing of the past and promise equality. How else,” I rolled my eyes. “But promise is not the same as real equality. Managers tend to choose a male over a female for leadership roles. The ‘safer’ choice. It is part of our culture.” “Institutionalized.”

“Part of the decision-making process,” I nodded.
“That’s revolting,” she said.
“I’ll say discouraging in the first place. Women lower their expectations. They are scaling back, literally choosing to watch from the sidelines. Or dropping out of the workforce.”
“Housework and child care, that’s the message,” she smiled foolishly.

“Tell me, how many women were in the room this morning, when you displayed your keynote?” “I was the only one. And five men,” Joanne said noticing for the first time the sort of people in leadership roles.
“See? The truth is that men run the corporate world.”
“The Motherhood Penalty,” she seethed. “Hurting all women, not just mothers or expectant mothers.”
“Even the thought that a woman can have a baby can be enough for bosses to push her back,” I nodded. “In a subtle and quiet way.”
“That’s sick,” she snapped.

“Dangerous,” I stressed. “An unprecedented, disruptive change is imminent. We’re all living the most pressing economic and social issues of our time. And what do we do? We perpetuate stereotypes and gender biases, choosing to put half of the human thinking power to do the laundry.”

Her back straightened. Her chin lifted.

“Girls are already outperforming boys,” I said nodding to the primary school. “Surveys say they show greater learning motivation, more initiative, higher concentration and better skills.” I paused.
“And then what do we do? We ruin all this momentum in a workplace where pay inequity, lower access to leadership and slower promotions still works against women. A chronic waste of talent at a time when we need sustainable growth.”

Moms are trotting along, yanking their children’s arms in a crazy babble of voices. Bonnie sauntered out of the classroom with her arms linked with two other little girls. “Here’s Bonnie,” Joanne said, and her face lit up. “Hi, sweetie!”
“Mommy!” Bonnie ran to her, and she scooped her up. She buried her nose in her hair. “How was it? It was fun?”

I pulled up behind a big blue SUV at a red light.
“Small-minded bastard,” she said out loud, absent. Maybe referring to her boss. Or Stephen, who was predictably in the conference room this morning, as usual spending his life agreeing with his boss.

Joanne wasn’t ready for what happened. She wasn’t on alert. She was busy working on her project. All she could do was just stand there. Smile and nod. And take it, ‘Sure, no problem,’ while her mood growled and struggled and strained at the leash.

“Who is a bastard?” said Bonnie from the back seat. She chatted with me non-stop the whole way, explaining everything I needed to know about her school.
“The guy in front of us,” I said quickly. I don’t want to start alienating a six-year-old little girl mind with the motherhood penalty, do I?

Joanne put her hand over mine in silent apology for her uncontrolled reaction. “Do I sound bitchy?” she muttered.
“Sorry. Blame gender discrimination.”

“Do you want me to kill the bastard?” I whispered playfully. “I could frame Stephen for it.” “Yes please,” she smiled, finally relaxed. “That would be lovely.”

“Come and look at this,” I said, and Joanne had come in and stood next to me, watching Bonnie sleep for a few minutes before grinning at each other and tip-toeing out to have a drink in the kitchen. I’m very fond of Bonnie.

“The acceptable standards are framing the issue as ‘career-kids balance,’” I said. “As if the two were opposed. Practically ensuring career will lose out.”
“What mother would ever choose career over her kids?” she rolled her eyes.
“Not a real choice,” I agreed. “This is a false binary that makes a lot of young women feel they either have to be a good mom or take the career path.”

“Naturally most of the women are scaling back their ambitions. Or worse, they’re dropping out of the workforce,” she said, her brow creasing.
“Not by choice, but by stereotypes erected by society,” I nodded. “The false binary,”

“As it would be impossible to be a good professional as well as a good mother,” she said feeling the fury rise again.
“The motherhood penalty. Hurting all women.”
“It’s just so unfair,” she winced. “So here I am. A single mom.”

“I think no woman should compromise her career goals,” I said in a neutral voice. “And I think men must play a more active role. Until women have supportive managers and co-workers as well as partners, they don’t have a real choice.”
“A long way to go. One step forward two steps back,” she smiled ruefully.

“True. But twenty years down the road you’ll put your hands on your hips and say, ‘I raised a good kid.’ And for your job, you’ll wake up every morning proud of your achievements.”

“I will not let the motherhood penalty put me on the ground,” she murmured after a while.
“You know you enter a minefield.”
“I know. And I’ll do it in style. On high heels,” Joanne laughed and handed me the grocery list for tomorrow.

Image by Dubova

+ posts
Călin Popescu
+ posts

Share this post