Against a Brick Wall

Evidence says that America’s working mothers hit a maternal wall long before they see a glass ceiling

Here’s a little-known bit of trivia: There are 41 women holding the position of CEO with a Fortune 500 company and at the same time there is nearly an equal number of men with the name John holding that same position.

“How can there be as many men CEOs with one particular name as the total number of women CEOs?” asked Eden King, PhD, Associate Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Rice University, during the first few minutes of her APA 2021 keynote presentation.

The session, titled Why the “Opt-Out” Explanation is Insufficient: Subtle Messages Push Women out of Work, focused on Dr. King’s current research, which aims to explain why there aren’t more American working moms at the top. It’s a study effort that’s resulted in more than 100 scholarly products and has been featured in outlets such as the New York Times, Good Morning America, and Harvard Business Review.

One reason for the shortage that quickly comes up is family. “Statistics suggest that as many as 29% of women leave the workforce for an extended period of time because they’re making choices to prioritize their families above their careers,” Dr. King said. “But a growing body of evidence from social science confronts this perspective and suggests that a much more complex set of factors are at play.”

Back to the Wall

Research says that mothers encounter “motherhood penalties” or hit a “maternal wall” long before they see a glass ceiling, Dr. King explained

Here are the more obvious inequities that define a maternal wall, according to Dr. King’s research.

  • There’s a pay gap between mothers and non-mothers that far exceeds the overall pay gap between genders, and this is particularly true for Native American, Latina, and Black mothers.
  • There are fewer job opportunities for women who are also mothers. “Experiments that hold everything constant, except for gender and parental status, suggest that moms are less likely to be hired than otherwise identical non-moms,” Dr. King stated.
  • The maternal wall also impacts how working mothers are treated on the job. “Survey data confirms that 27% of working mothers report being treated as if they are not committed to their work, and 19% of moms say they have been passed over for a promotion,” Dr. King said.

There are also subtle messages tied to a maternal wall that have pernicious consequences for a woman’s career. For example, Dr. King described a series of studies that she and her colleagues conducted. A group of women, who appeared to be pregnant, but were actually wearing a pregnancy prosthesis, either applied for a retail job or asked for help in a retail store.

“When the ‘pregnant’ women applied for jobs, store managers reacted with rudeness, hostility, no eye contact, and shorter interactions. These behaviors reflect a hostile form of sexism. However, when the same women, still wearing their ‘pregnant bellies’ asked for help to find a gift, store managers had very different reactions. They were very friendly, reflecting a benevolent form of sexism that’s rooted in a belief that women should be protected and need help because they lack competence.”

A point that might be missed is that even a seemingly positive form of sexism, like a friendly offer to help a woman in need, can, according to Dr. King, have negative consequences for a woman’s career. “We find that women’s experiences of these seemingly positive behaviors have negative effects on their self-confidence. So, when women are treated as if they needed help to complete a task – or a job – they began to doubt their own abilities. And this doubt correlates with their intentions to leave their jobs in the workplace altogether.”

Tearing Down the Wall

“A big factor underlying this maternal wall is an inconsistency between what people think of as an ideal worker and what people think of as an ideal mother,” Dr. King stressed. “An ideal worker is someone who prioritizes work and is available for work 24/7; an ideal mother is someone who prioritizes family and is available for family 24/7. Moms are supposed to cook healthy meals, scare away monsters at bedtime, breastfeed on demand for a year, and manage the social, emotional, and academic lives of their children.”

The result is that moms quickly realize that they can’t possibly be both an ideal mother and an ideal worker. Fathers, on the other hand, get the message that their success at work defines them. These attitudes likely perpetuate the fact that 76% of Americans believe an “ideal situation” has Dad working fulltime and only 33% of Americans believe a mom should work full time.

The fix, Dr. King proposed, is a world where women lean into their careers, but even more important, men lean into their families. “This is what needs to be expected, be considered normal, and encouraged by families and their organizations.”

In addition, Dr, King said, “It needs to not only be possible but expected that dads take paternity leave.” And the benefits associated with at least a month of paternity leave are healthy, including dads feeling closer to their kids – even nine years down the road.

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

Before March 2020, some might have said that America’s working moms were slowly – very slowly – making forward toward a fairer work/family life. Unfortunately, the pandemic pushed US moms and dads backwards.

Dr. King cited a 2020 study she led that included dual-career parents of young children during COVID-19’s peak. “My colleagues and I found that the most common strategy for parents to deal with the sudden need to provide constant care for their children was ‘moms do it all.’

“Women were the ones managing virtual schoolwork, preparing endless meals, and changing diapers while they were working. And even if the father was working from home in the same physical space, parents reverted to traditional gender roles. This makes it even more important for us to change the message,” Dr. King concluded.