Career Advice, Watercooler

The Maternal Wall: Smashing the Unconscious Biases about Working Moms

As a journalist and entrepreneur, Sarah Lacy was fearless. She routinely reported tough stories that exposed bad practices at major tech companies during her time at TechCrunch and BusinessWeek. She wrote books. She founded a company, the investigative journalism outlet Pando, while she was on maternity leave.

But Lacy’s biggest fear was motherhood. “As soon as you get close to womanhood, you hear that becoming a mother will ruin you,” Lacy says. “’You won’t be yourself. You won’t be ambitious.’ Of course, I was terrified. It sounded like motherhood was an Invasion of the Body Snatchers moment.”

Instead, when she gave birth to her first child at age 35, the sense of relief was so palpable that she compares it to a bomb being defused. She was still Sarah – and a better version of herself, in fact, both in her personal life and at work. She felt stronger, sharper, far more productive, and more empathetic as a manager.

“I was so struck by the disconnect between what people had told me, and the reality of my own experience,” Lacy says. “I wanted to find out: Why is this lie so pervasive in the culture?”

sarah lacy glassdoorThat question inspired Lacy’s new book: A Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy (Harper Collins, 2017), explores the biases that create a “Maternal Wall” at work, why working moms are an asset to companies, and the steps everyone can take toward creating a more equitable workplace.

The “Maternal Wall” in the Workplace

Given all she’d heard about motherhood, Lacy felt she had to delay having kids until she was established in her career. “I’d quit good jobs, I’d pissed off powerful people with my reporting, and yet I felt motherhood was going to be the biggest risk I’d ever taken. It was the one thing that terrified me. Why was what I was told so damn wrong?”

A Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug explores that question in depth, as well as the underlying mistaken beliefs at play. Lacy calls the latter the “Maternal Wall”: widespread, unconscious biases about working mothers as less able, less committed to work, and less productive.

“In our country, the belief is that you can be a great mother or a great worker, but not both,” Lacy says. “The facts don’t bear that out. But women still suffer for it.” She discovered a number of studies that show working mothers are “a lucrative asset for companies”; for example, 2014 data found these women are more productive than their peers over the course of their careers.

Yet the workplace stats are at odds with these findings, as Lacy details in A Uterus is a Feature. Almost 80% of women are less likely to be hired if they are mothers, and they’re also half as likely to be promoted. Working mothers also earn an average of $11,000 less in salary, even as they are held to higher standards than their peers.

Lacy pins the disconnect on “so many little insidious patriarchy reasons, and then you have ‘benevolent’ sexism reasons too. The company might think they’re protecting you by not promoting you; if we believe it’s impossible to be a good mother and a good employee, then we don’t want to put you in a position where you’re made weaker. That’s what’s deeply messed up about it, and deeply intractable.”

It’s also a bias that’s difficult to change quickly, Lacy says, because men never have the “’a-ha!’ moment that I did, that other working mothers have, when you realize that you’re not only OK at work but you’re better.”

Further compounding the problem, she adds, is the United States’ lack of federal paid parental leave. Not all women qualify for the 12 weeks of unpaid leave granted by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, and even fewer are able to go that long without a paycheck. So they’re forced to go back to work too early, just as they’re learning about motherhood and adjusting to the transition. The country’s status as the only developed nation with no paid maternity leave is a reflection of the underlying beliefs and biases, Lacy says: “When America is that much of an outlier, you have to think about why that is.”

Smashing the Maternal Wall – and the Patriarchy

Many of the statistics about the attitudes toward working mothers remain bleak. But Lacy sees promising trends, and cause to be optimistic.

First, Lacy found the Maternal Wall impacts about 60% of women. And while it should be zero, she notes, that figure “still means there are 40% of employers who don’t believe this bias, who don’t see motherhood as detrimental.”

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Courtesy of Elisabeth Fall

That’s one takeaway she hopes readers of A Uterus is a Feature take to heart: “If the environment you’re in is working against you, you’re not alone. But there are also a lot of places you can go to be treated more fairly.”

Secondly, she’s heartened by the response to — and the widespread coverage of –recent sexual harassment and assault allegations from Silicon Valley to Hollywood. “Whether it’s Uber or Harvey Weinstein, it feels like women are finally being believed,” Lacy says. “Even a year ago I don’t think people would have dreamed a [venture capitalist] would be fired for propositioning a woman who pitched him. And now it’s happening.”

But it will take a lot more to smash the biases for everyone – and there are actions working mothers, employers, and everyone can take to help, Lacy says.

“First, we have to own our own battles as women,” she explains. “It’s so important not to feel like you need to ask permission – from a spouse, from society – to live the life that’s most fulfilling to you, whether that’s working outside the home or not. I see books about the ’50-50 marriage,’ and yet they talk about how to ‘negotiate’ with your spouse about having a career. I hear people telling women they should be teachers so they can spend more time with their children. And to all of it, I say f*** that. Listen to your gut as a mother: You are the leading expert on what’s best for you and your children.”

And everyone at the workplace, whether they’re mothers or women or neither, can  “Amplify the work of marginalized groups. Stand up for someone who gets talked over during a meeting. Spend time with women and recognize their strength.

As for employers, Lacy’s message comes in the form of a Uterus chapter name. “It’s called ‘If You Don’t Hire More Women After Reading This Chapter, You’re Just Sexist.’ And there, that’s how I feel. It lays out how gender- and racially balanced teams perform better across the map.  So now you know, and you have the power to do something.”

Overall, Lacy adds, the entire view of motherhood needs to change. It’s not a death sentence, nor a career-killer. It can make women stronger than ever, and in turn their companies too.

“Let’s think of motherhood the way men would describe it,” Lacy says. “They would post pictures, brag about how long they were in labor. It would be an extreme sport, something badass and amazing. That’s how we view milestones like starting companies – and that’s how we need to see motherhood too.”

 

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Feature Photo Credit: Geoffrey Ellis