Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that Mothers’ Day is coming up; the marketers have made sure of that. And no doubt about it, mothers are good for marketing – both marketing about mothers (treat Mom to brunch! buy her a spa treatment!) as well as marketing to mothers. It’s a fact that women are more likely to be the decisionmakers for much consumer purchasing, from grocery decisions to family health care.
But even as moms wield some power in the marketplace, and increasingly, politically as well (witness the rise of groups such as MomsRising), when it comes to the workplace, being identified as a mother still is a double-edged sword. Or perhaps just a sword.
This is an issue close to home – not just because of Legal Voice’s work, but also my own work experiences. When I left a private law firm to teach, a partner said, “Oh, that’s great; you’ll be able to be with your child more, working part-time.” Never mind that, actually, I had accepted a full-time teaching position – more variable work hours, but definitely full-time.
And another recent example: I received a voicemail on a Friday. The caller, a colleague at another organization, said something to the effect, “I know you have kids so you might not be there on a Friday afternoon, but ....” As it happens, because of budget issues, our office is closed on Fridays – for everyone, not just those of us who are parents. But this person did not know that. Yet his assumption, simply because I did not happen to pick up the phone, was telling.
These may be relatively benign examples of a form of gender stereotyping – so-called “benevolent” stereotyping – but stereotyping nonetheless. And such stereotyping can have real consequences for women’s employment opportunities.
If you are a mother, employers are more likely to perceive you as not a hard worker, or not interested in work opportunities. (While this is true for both male and female parents, but the effect is more pronounced for women.) For example, people assume when you are out of the office that you must be attending to family responsibilities, rather than at a work-related meeting, or might assume a working mother would not want to relocate to another city, even if it would mean a promotion. Even though the employer is not acting out of hostility, such stereotyping can still result adverse employment actions. (See the E.E.O.C. guidance discussing this issue here.)
And, you might ask, so what? Especially in this economic environment, shouldn’t employers be able to hire the person who will be more likely to put in those extra hours? The one who won’t be running off to have a baby or needing those sick days to take their kid to the doctor?
That all may be true if the employer is acting based on real facts and individual circumstances. But more often than not, those decisions are based on assumptions, not real experiences with that particular worker. Here are just some of the reasons why gender stereotyping in the workplace should be everybody’s issue – not just a mothers’ issue:
Without the wage gap, and with workplaces where women truly have equal opportunity to be hired, advance, and succeed, guess who would then have more income to spend on groceries, consumer goods, and other purchases that drive our economy? You got it: mothers. (And, of course, other women, and their households, too.) Increase their purchasing power, increase businesses’ bottom lines.
So if you choose, buy a card for your mom, or for another mom, for Mother’s Day. But go ahead, be selfish too: support policies that make it possible for all women to have equal opportunities in the workplace. After all, it makes economic sense.