Last month, the New York Times published an Opinion piece “The Open Secret of Anti-Mom Bias at Work.” The piece’s author, Katherine Goldstein, depicts incidents ranging from being passed over for a promotion to employees’ blanket statements about working with mothers. With such stark examples, why haven’t we heard from more working mothers about what it’s like to be a parent and an employee? Goldstein has a few ideas: job-security fears heightened by financial responsibility, just plain exhaustion, and the lack of public figures, the kind we’ve seen in the #MeToo movement.
Wondering if the #MeToo movement would, as Goldstein posits, inspire working mothers to tell their stories, we asked women to describe how becoming a mother has affected their careers. All of them preferred to use pseudonyms, citing the exact reasons above. Below, the stories of six women treated differently at work because they’re moms.
Allison: ‘From pregnancy on, I wasn’t brought to as many outside meetings’
My previous employer was a “progressive” organization. The progressive world, I think, is actually behind the corporate world in terms of how mothers are treated in the workplace — just general attitudes and HR policies.
I had a pending promotion that was actively stalled once I announced I was pregnant. They ended up giving me the additional work and responsibilities, but held off on the title change and raise. I wasn’t really given a reason, but I found out through back channels that my pregnancy was the reason. And even later I found that this organization spent more on legal counsel to withhold my promotion than the salary change would have been.
From pregnancy on, I wasn’t brought to as many outside meetings, to any situation where I’d be representing the organization. I think the male senior staff members just weren’t comfortable with a pregnant woman being the face of the organization.
Once I came back to work as a mother, it really felt like I was damaged goods. I was supposed to be a member of the senior staff — and I was still doing the lion’s share of the work — but I was put behind the scenes. I wasn’t invited to key meetings or events, or given the same networking opportunities. I was often passed over for travel, with no one asking me about my schedule. I was just not included.
I also found that management really watched mothers carefully for being absent or late, so I was always careful to arrive early and stay late. Still, it felt like there was the expectation that you’d be less accountable. It immediately felt like there was the assumption that you were less valuable.
This wasn’t all that surprising to me, because I’d had a lot of these same anxieties about becoming a parent. I know how pregnant women are treated by society — whether it’s the medical community, or the workplace, or society as a whole, we have a real problem in the way that we treat and value motherhood. But I was surprised, when this bias happened to me personally, by how attacked I felt. I was going above and beyond, and still. I worked until midnight the day I gave birth. I really worked hard to compensate any bias.
There’s just not a lot of women in leadership, even at progressive organizations. But I was hurt that the few women who were older mothers weren’t more supportive of me. I think it’s just so ingrained — this bias is seen as not a big deal, or a casual slight, rather than as decisions that really affect our career trajectory and our bottom line. I think when you’ve lived through this yourself, you’re less likely to be sympathetic.
Sally: ‘I’d seen other high-performing associates become moms and struggle, and I was convinced I was going to be different’
I had lots of expectations for being a working mother, lots of fake dreams in my head for how this was all going to go. At my top-tier law firm, I’d seen other high-performing associates become moms and struggle, and I was convinced I was going to be different. I thought the whole problem was they were being lazy, not prioritizing their career or trying hard enough. I knew I’d do things differently, and I’d be supermom while still being a hard-charging associate.
Obviously, I did not know what the hell I was talking about. I’m mortified now, by what I thought of these other women.
In Big Law, there are two tracks for women: You either don’t have a family, or do have a family and have au pairs and help out the wazoo, work insane hours, and never see your family. Or you get mommy-tracked, which means you have less desirable projects and go part-time. Going part-time means you have a significant pay cut for a very marginal decrease in the number of hours you’re expected to work. It’s not at all in proportion to the reduction to actual effort.
No one explicitly warned me not to have a family, but it was generally known that becoming a mom put you on thin ice.
After I came back from maternity leave, everyone was ostensibly supportive, but I did really struggle to get my workload back. My workload was something I’d fought hard for; when you go on leave, you have to transfer it to someone else. I left at 6:30 every day — terribly early, I know. One person would purposefully schedule calls for 7, and then ask whether I was available, giving me this look like, Choose.
I experienced bias from men and women, and I think, to be honest, sometimes the women were worse because they had a chip on their shoulder. They felt like they’d given up the idea of having a family and were pissed that a mother would expect “soft treatment.” Or they were women who had had kids and used other coping mechanisms — like lots of paid help — and felt like you should too. I can’t think of another female partner who was really doing the mom stuff. They just didn’t exist.
Right around the time I came back from leave, I started to realize I had no future in Big Law if I wanted to be involved with my son’s life. That was when I stopped thinking about making partner and started thinking about making my exit.
At this point, I desperately want to go back to my 20-something self and tell her: It’s not going to pay off. You’re not going to get the shiny ring at the end.
I really think the only thing that can be done about an anti-mom bias is a gradual cultural shift. I hope our generation of men is different. My husband often takes time off to take our kids to the doctor — he’s had our kids with him at work, because he’s had to. I hope that as more men are more active parents, this idea that everything is on moms will shift. We’ll have to figure out how to make a more humane workplace for all of us. When it was just the women we could shit all over, we could keep going. Men could still have families, because the women were taking care of it.
Wanda: ‘I think an inconsiderate woman is just as likely as an inconsiderate man to complain about parenthood affecting work’
I work in publishing, and I’ve seen people make disparaging comments about moms and their maternity leaves. People have told me they specifically have bosses who don’t like moms. I’ve seen people get frustrated at slow response times with the “excuse” of coming back from maternity leave, or entire imprints where people aren’t allowed to work from home. The longer I’m a working mom, the more I believe it’s really down to individuals. If you work for someone who is open-minded about being a working parent, it really trickles down into their employees’ quality of life.
When I had a kid, I was still an assistant and I didn’t have an office, and my boss relied directly on me for a lot of work to be done. I wasn’t even that young, but my position at the time made it harder to make space for being a working mom. I breastfed, and it was incredibly difficult to fit pumping into my workday, as well as fit that into the space of my office. I never felt like my situation was anything like a priority for my company, and it really hurt. It felt like I simply wasn’t important enough to warrant the small amount of effort it would have taken to make me feel comfortable. (Effort that didn’t need to be taken for the other moms who had offices and were further along in their careers.) At one point, while I was still breastfeeding and my kid was still really small, I remember asking to work from home on Fridays, and I was refused.
I think an inconsiderate woman is just as likely as an inconsiderate man to complain about parenthood affecting work. I know other parents who complain about it. Everybody’s parenting situations are so different — you might have family members babysitting for free, you might have more money, you might have a stay-at-home partner. So if you work with someone who is one of two full-time working parents, and they don’t have help, their life is just different, and, yeah, harder.
Laura: ‘My co-workers definitely made snide comments’
I’m a gynecologist. I have three children under age 7. When we had our first two children, my husband was a stay-at-home dad — he stepped out of the workforce during the recession. It just made sense for us.
Those first several years my co-workers definitely made snide comments: I took a six-week maternity leave with my first child and a four-week maternity leave with my second. Even with such short leave, people said little things about how long they had to cover for me, how difficult it was that I’d taken two leaves in such a short period of time. But if you looked at vacation times over the course of those years, I took less time away than several of my partners.
By the time I had our third child, my husband had started a small business, so I no longer had a stay-at-home parent. Before then I was sometimes treated like one of the guys, because I had a “wife” at home. Now, I’ve been asked if I’m going to go part-time, the assumption being that I’ll be doing less at work to focus on my kids. One of my male partners told me flat-out that I and our other female partners who have kids should really be spending more time at home and should send new patients to him or the other male partners. My jaw just dropped. When I expressed disbelief, he said something like, “What? If you’re not interested in spending time with your kids, that makes you a bad mother.” I don’t think he had any idea at all what’s wrong with saying that.
Especially since we’re in the field of women’s medicine, you’d think there’d be a sense of irony at treatment like this. I was pressured to work during a four-week maternity leave!
I don’t think saying people should respect women more and we should be able to work is going to help. I wish it would, but I’m not as optimistic about that as I am about the millennial parents who seem very focused on parenting and work-life balance in ways that previous generations were not. This focus could mean that everyone asks for these things, and it’s not just a woman’s problem.
Megan: ‘They’d decided my upcoming maternity leave would be too disruptive for me to take the position’
I wasn’t formally offered a job, but I had been talking to my manager about taking a promotion at work. One day, she pulled me aside in the kitchen and told me she thought it was definitely going to happen, they just had to iron out the details. I hadn’t gotten a salary offer or anything. But then, three days later an email went out to the entire staff, welcoming someone else into the role. I hadn’t been notified at all.
When I reached out to my manager, she told me — in an email — that they’d decided my upcoming maternity leave would be too disruptive for me to take the position. It was stunning to me, that she put it in writing, with no idea that there was anything wrong with it. I was really upset, and thought this was probably illegal. I did some research and very informally talked to a lawyer about whether it was pregnancy discrimination. He said he didn’t know enough to know for sure, but that it sure sounded like it.
He laid out a few options: sue them, have an attorney write a letter, talk to my manager directly. On a practical level, I was just not going to spend the time and money suing them. What I chose to do was sit down with my boss and talk to her. It was interesting: From her perspective, she felt sorry she had hurt me. My perspective was that I didn’t care about feelings — I was pissed. I was discriminated against.
I don’t think I said “pregnancy discrimination,” but I did say very clearly that only my qualifications should have influenced whether I got the job. At the end of the conversation, she said something like, “Well, if you’re going to sue us …” What we eventually worked out was that I got a title change and a raise, about what I would have gotten with the original promotion. I was just so shocked at how brazen it had been — that she hadn’t thought through telling someone they weren’t being promoted because of pregnancy.
Lindsay: ‘I was expecting her to just start making a plan for my upcoming leave, not for her attitude toward me to change’
I’m pregnant right now. Two and a half weeks ago, I told my manager. She’s new; we’re still establishing our relationship. My prior manager and I were very close, and she was really a mentor to me. With my new manager, I’ve had a few conversations that made me slightly wary — she was fairly flip when I asked to work from home once a week because I volunteer at a women’s shelter. But I was expecting her to just start making a plan for my upcoming leave, not for her attitude toward me to change.
During a recent conversation, she suggested that I should be looking for lateral moves not because I am not qualified for a promotion, but because as a new mom I’m going to have a lot of responsibility — and she didn’t know if that would work with the responsibility of a promotion. She said, “I know where your heart is,” which was a strange comment because we don’t have a close personal relationship.
Another time, we were traveling together and getting out of a rental car and I asked her whether she’d gotten her phone charger. She said, “Mommy instincts already!” That kind of thing is just annoying, but I think indicates how she thinks of me now. She also wished me a happy Mother’s Day, which made me uncomfortable, but was not something I wanted to get into a battle over.
I ended up talking to my manager’s manager, who suggested that I speak directly with her. I haven’t had a chance to do it yet, and I’m not sure how that conversation will go. I think she thinks she was just being friendly, but to me, since she’s the person who’s responsible for my reviews, that attitude is really problematic.
One of the reasons I’ve been married for five years before having kids is because of general worries about being a working parent. Work is important to me; contributing to the financial life that my husband and I have set up is very important to me. So when I see research about the drop in earnings after a woman has a child, it definitely makes me nervous.