The Maternal Wall: How to Disrupt Bias Against Working Mothers

maternal wall mother and child

“One of the worst career moves a woman can make is to have children”, states Clair Cain Miller in the New York Times.

Given an identical CV to review, with only 4 words added to the one (member of the PTA); 79% of participants chose the candidate who is not a mother. Mothers are 50% less likely to get promoted. These are stats shared  by Joanne C Williams. A further study cited in the  Journal of Social Studies backs this up, where it was found that subtly adding to a candidate profile that she was a  mother, led to the mother being less likely to be chosen for assignments, promoted and marked as less competent. A maternal wall is a form of bias towards women  because they have children. Therefore, it is the strongest form of bias faced by women.

[bctt tweet=”‘Maternal Wall’ is the strongest form of bias faced by women, just because they have children.” username=”cherralle_”]

In this post I will discuss:

  • What is maternal bias, and how it shows up
  • Steps women can take to disrupt the maternal wall bias
  • Steps employers can take to disrupt the maternal wall bias

Related Post: Bye Bye Mommy Guilt – Why You Should Feel Proud Of Being a Working Mom

photoshoot parents and child

What is maternal wall bias

Maternal wall bias kicks in as soon as women have children,  subtly their career prospects are impacted. It is linked to perceptions regarding how a mother should behave, where her place is and an assumption that she will pick the ‘mommy track’. Mommy track is defined as a path selected by mothers who choose to put their family first and ‘opt out’ of a career. Mothers are seen as less competent than childless counterparts. On the other hand mothers are also seen as ‘harsh and cold’ if they remain committed to their careers.

I have experienced this form of unconscious bias when I get asked why I stay late at work, ‘because I have children’. However, this question is not asked of my colleagues with no kids. Which is absurd as staying late at work impacts employees whether they have children or not.  “What are your kids and husband having for supper?”, I have been asked. These are well-meaning questions and not meant to do any harm, but it demonstrates unconscious bias and judgment that working mothers face. “You are not interested in a career path are you, your child needs you?”, I was asked by a well-meaning individual.

Undesirable employees, who are unable to commit is an incorrect perception of working mothers, which is part of the maternal wall bias. Seen as full of ‘issues’ and ‘not committed’. On the other hand, when working mothers remain career committed and ambitions they are deemed to be ‘not maternal enough’  and made out to be ‘cold’, as stated in the Harvard Business Review.

mother and daughter

How mothers may disrupt the maternal wall bias

As discussed by Joan C Williams.

Set realistic standards for yourself

Know that being available 24/7 for your kids all the time is not possible. Let go of perfectionism, and accept that striving for perfection will cause additional stressors in family life.

Related Post: Featured: Why I Am Okay With Being a Good Enough Parent

If you remain career committed, signal it very clearly

When you return from maternity leave, make a point of discussing your career goals with your manager. If you want to be promoted,  willing to travel, relocate and if you are the primary earner – you need state this clearly. If you do not state this explicitly, certain assumption will be made for you.

Related Post: Maternity Leave: 5 Practical Steps To Make Returning To Work Easier

Strive for equal parenting if it suits your value system

Provided you are not a single parent. Know that you are not solely accountable for the well-being of your child and family. Engage and discuss with your partner how to share home responsibilities.

If you are a mother in a senior position, you must be a role model

You are in a position to set an example for others when you reach a level in the organisation when you have people who report to you. By showing your motherhood and announcing when you need to leave early for an event at your child’s school, sets the tone for the environment. Very importantly, it creates a space to allow mothers and fathers to be open about their parenthood.

Related Post: Do I Still Need To Lean In When I Am Just So Tired?

How employers may disrupt the maternal wall bias

Promotions, salary, and assignments need to be free of bias

Review policies and processes to ensure that this bias does not come into play. When making employment decisions, someone’s care giver status cannot be a factor.

Adopt a flexible approach to work

One way to overcome bias is to apply more flexibility for all employees (care givers included). Work becomes about outcomes and not the hours clocked. The reality is that caregivers do need the flexibility to provide adequate care for their children (or ill family members).

[bctt tweet=”Adopting a flexible approach to work can negate the effects of bias that working mothers face ” username=”cherralle)”]

Do not make assumptions

An employer should never assume anything because someone is a mother. Example, not awarding someone a new stretch role because she has just returned from maternity leave. It remains key to discuss each assignment with a mother as you would with any other person. Then let the individual advise if there are constraints.


Pregnant woman and child

Scheduling main activities after hours on a recurring basis

I accept that we do not live in a fairy tale where every thing happens before 17h00, and in some high pressure environments this is a reality. The point about late meetings links to the point about flexibility. If an environment demands late meetings there should be flexibility to accommodate early days. Then it balances out.

Scheduling key and strategic activities after hours impact working mothers. In my opinion, this is a subtle and gentle way of nudging mothers out of the work force. If a working mother is constantly  (unconsciously) expected to choose between a career and her children, given a choice she will pick her kids. After being constantly placed in this position, women may opt to leave the work force or ‘down scale’ their career.

I am a career committed parent

My approach to my work and life, is being flexible, focused and outcome oriented. My role as a mother is who I am.  I am a career committed parent.

Read further: The Side of Motherhood That We Do Not Post On Instagram

Working mothers are excellent employees in my opinion!

Working mothers are focused, don’t waste time, and drive for results. They know they have a set amount of time within which to work. They are also natural leaders, because they co-lead families, and they have agility. You need agility to be able to deal with everything a parent has to deal with, lack of sleep, tantrums, homework, planning meals, school functions, family projects, and the list goes on.

[bctt tweet=”Allow mothers the space to be mothers. Mothers are excellent employees, they drive for results. ” username=”cherralle_”]

The reality is that most women will end up having children. The reality is that fatherhood is changing, fathers WANT to play a stronger role in the family too. It is time to sit up and take note of this. If we want to create companies and governments with the best leadership talent, we need men and women to lead.

Have you positively disrupted  the maternal wall in your career? Tell me in the comments!



Featured Image: pixabay

Image: pixabay

Author: Cherralle

Mom, wife and career loving parent. This blog focus on career and work life topics for mothers.

8 thoughts on “The Maternal Wall: How to Disrupt Bias Against Working Mothers”

    1. I agree it will open the door for more parents to get the flexibility and for employers to get hard working employees

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