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Discrimination Against Working Mothers Must End

March 31, 2021, 8:01 AM

In September 1966, when Ida Phillips stepped into the offices of Martin Marietta, an Orlando, Fla.-based missile plant, she expected to find a job application. Instead, she found open discrimination. After discovering that Phillips had a child in preschool, the receptionist turned her away, explaining that women with young children were more likely to miss work.

Phillips sued. And in January 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously sided with her, ruling that denying women employment on the basis of motherhood was a violation of their civil rights. The court, however, refused to rule out the possibility that having preschool-aged children could affect a woman’s ability to do her job.

Phillips vs. Martin Marietta Corp. may have dealt a blow to the so-called maternal wall—the bias and discrimination that mothers face in the workplace. But 50 years after the decision, that wall continues to cast a long shadow over corporate America.

The Motherhood Penalty

Working mothers pay a steep motherhood penalty, as they’re passed over for promotions, given low-quality “mommy track” assignments, demoted, or unfairly disadvantaged for requesting flexible schedules. Even when women are given equal work, they’re paid less to do it.

Last Wednesday, March 24th, was National Equal Pay Day—the day marking how long women must work to earn what men earned in 2020. For Black women, Equal Pay Day doesn’t come until Aug. 3. For Latina women, Oct. 2.

The pandemic hasn’t done them any favors: An analysis conducted by the National Women’s Law Center found that women accounted for all 140,000 jobs lost in December. Some of the women who left the workforce over the past year, whether because of layoffs or the need to care for loved ones, may never return.

On Zoom calls every day, I see the burdens faced by mothers across corporate America. Women working in law are often asked to remain accessible at all times of the day, while simultaneously balancing a larger share of responsibilities at home. Children often disrupt client calls, settlement meetings, and even trials, which can prove hazardous for female lawyers with unsympathetic audiences. And for women—particularly women of color—managing both elderly parents and young children in multi-generational households, the demands only multiply.

Trends in Systemic Bias

At the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), we wanted to measure the impact of the maternal wall, as well as other forms of systemic bias—which have hampered women’s advancement since long before the pandemic forced people back into their homes. In 2018, we conducted a first-of-its-kind workplace experience survey in partnership with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Center for WorkLifeLaw at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

The trends we found in systemic bias towards women and people of color were not surprising—but our findings for working mothers were downright startling:

  • Both White women and women of color reported that their commitment or competence was questioned after they had kids: 49% of women of color and 56% of White women felt that their colleagues’ perceptions of them changed after having children.
  • 20% of women, evenly split between White women and women of color, reported that colleagues advised them to stay home or put their career on hold after having children—compared with only 5% of White men.

Promising Efforts to Break Down Barriers

In the years since our report, we’ve seen greater public attention directed toward the maternal wall—and we’ve seen promising efforts to break it down across corporate America. Companies like Johnson & Johnson and IBM have adopted new measures, ranging from offering flexible work schedules to emergency backup or in-home childcare, which ease the pressure on working moms.

But more work remains to ensure this trend becomes the norm, not the exception. The title of our report, “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See,” remains truer than ever. And our call to action for corporate leaders across America—to track bias against working mothers, and to hold themselves accountable for preventing it—remains as urgent as it was back in 1971.

In the aftermath of that defining case, Phillips’ lawyer noted that the ruling reflected “a great step forward in achieving fair employment for all women.” He was right, but it was only a first step.

Now, as we close out Women’s History Month, clear-eyed about the challenges ahead, it’s on us to use the momentum from this month to take the next step, and the one after that—until we’ve broken down the maternal wall across corporate America, and created a more inclusive working environment for everyone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Jean Lee is president and chief executive officer of the MCCA, the leading national organization focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal industry by providing research and strategic solutions.

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