Why Are Mothers And Fathers Still At A Disadvantage At Work?

Is today’s “ideal worker” childless?

“Equal pay for equal work.” There were a series of catchphrases at this year’s Democratic National Convention, and this was a popular one. Touted by Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama, and the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, “equal pay for equal work” not only signified the first bill signed into law by President Obama, but also acted as a rallying cry for women, Democrat and otherwise, who still see and experience day-to-day gender discrimination at work. And it’s not just unequal pay for equal work; women’s access to “equal work” is still an issue across many industries.

According to research by the nonprofit Catalyst, women make up barely 4% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. A study by the National Law Journal found that women make up 19% of law firm partners and 15% of equity partners. Women take up only 9.1% of the board seats for Silicon Valley companies. And that’s just the private sector. Congress is 17% women and (need I say it?) we still haven’t come close to having a woman in the oval office.

What accounts for this disparity between men and women in the workplace? That was the question Joan asked when she combed through 35 years of social science literature and interviewed nearly 100 savvy successful women. Through her work on this project, now called The New Girls’ Network, Joan crystallized the Four Patterns of Gender Bias, the most salient of which is The Maternal Wall.

According to a study by Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik, the “motherhood penalty”—the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers—is larger than the gap in pay between men and women.

The study found that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired, only half as likely to be promoted, and offered an average of $11,000 less in salary than childless (or childfree) women with the same credentials. What’s more, unlike mothers, fathers actually benefited from their parental status; fathers received a “fatherhood bonus” of $4,000 over childless men.

So what gives? Despite shifts in family structure and women’s participation in the workplace, the ideal worker in the United States remains someone who works full time for 40 years and shows an uncompromising commitment to the office—in other words, the breadwinner of the 1960s. Now, the ideal worker norm is incompatible with ideals surrounding what it means to be a “good mother”—attentive, at home, always available to her children—but not incompatible with the notion of a “good father.” In fact, according to a 2002 study by Nicholas Townsend, surveyed fathers saw their commitment to work as the ultimate sign of paternal love (not, as one might believe, active participation in childrearing).

It’s quite obvious how this conception of the ideal worker disadvantages mothers. Mothers are seen as risky job candidates, unfit for promotion, and generally less competent, and consequently, face unfair treatment in the workplace. And it’s not just their competency that is under scrutiny; working moms are often subject to (not so subtle) messages that they are failing at motherhood. In a study of Wall Street traders, sociologist Louise Marie Roth interviewed a trader who, when pregnant, was asked by her bosses, “Who’s going to raise your children? Don’t you think that you’re the best person to raise your children?…This is a serious thing. You are bringing someone into the world.”

The ideal worker norm negatively affects the lives of men in ways that are less obvious, but equally important. While fathers who leave the majority of childcare and housework to their wives get a “fatherhood bonus” at work, fathers who share the care face a different beast of stigma and discrimination. A study currently under review at the Journal of Social Issues by Laurie Rudman and Kris Mescher found that men who requested the 12 weeks of leave to care for a child or parent to which they are entitled under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) were more likely to be demoted because they appeared more feminine than other men. “Real men” don’t take on these sort of family responsibilities; instead, “real men” work hard, long hours and show an unwavering commitment to work. In elite jobs, where masculinity cannot be performed by heavy lifting and other physical tasks, still “guys try to out-macho each other,” said an tech engineer to sociologist Marianne Cooper, “There’s a lot of ‘see how many hours I can work,’ whether you have a kid or not.”

This belief that “real men” belong at work and not at home pervades the policies of employers as well, despite protections for fathers under the FMLA. In a recent study documenting the failure of many companies to comply with the FMLA, University of Minnesota sociologist Erin Kelly spoke to a manager about her company’s paternity policy: “We felt that three days was more than enough time to take care of the remaining kids at home, if necessary, while the mom was in the hospital” but “if there’s a male employee that says, ‘I want to take three days off,’ the manager can say no, if they’re in the middle of something.” Not surprisingly, nearly a third of companies interviewed in Kelly’s study reported that they did not know of a single case of a father taking significant time off.

The “mine’s bigger than yours” culture of work helps no one—a 2008 study by the Families and Work Institute found that men’s feelings of work-life conflict increased dramatically since the late 1970s. Though important, we need to move beyond the question of whether women “can have it all”—instead let’s ask, what changes must be made at work and at home so that men and women share ”it” equally?

Joan Williams is the Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law, Distinguished Professor of Law and 1066 Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She has played a central role in reshaping debates over gender, class and work-family issues for over a quarter of a century and is the author, most recently, of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard, 2010).

Katherine Ullman is the Program Associate at the Center for WorkLife Law (WLL). Prior to joining WLL, she was a litigation assistant at Girard Gibbs LLP, a national plaintiffs’ class action firm based in San Francisco. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College, with honors and distinction.

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