Robert Neubecker

Working mothers face a ‘wall’ of bias—but there are ways to push back

When Isabel Escobar thought about applying for the position as chair of her chemical engineering department at the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington in 2018, she knew that she was qualified. Over the previous 15 years, she’d moved up the academic ladder at her former institution, the University of Toledo in Ohio, from an assistant professorship to becoming a full professor and associate dean. That’s why it was so jarring to hear from a new colleague, “You should be spending time with your small child, not being a department chair,” she recalls.

She and her partner had adopted a 6-week-old baby and become parents for the first time less than a month before she received the job offer from UK in 2015. There, “people have always seen me as a mom,” she says—meaning that her new job, with new colleagues, came with biases she hadn’t previously encountered.

When the department chair position came up, she wasn’t sure she wanted it because of the time commitment involved. “I was worried about maintaining my research,” Escobar says.

But the feedback she received when the position became available highlights a broader problem for her: She’s struggled to figure out how to get her colleagues, especially men, to realize that she is fully capable of performing her job and being a mom at the same time. Dealing with bias against working mothers, she says, is something that “no one prepares you for.”

Maternal wall bias

What Escobar faced has a name: It’s called “maternal wall bias,” and it’s a form of discrimination that many working mothers encounter, explains Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who studies workplace discrimination. Maternal wall bias occurs when colleagues view mothers—or pregnant women—as less competent and less committed to their jobs, she says, and it’s a major problem for women’s career advancement.

Maternal wall bias can manifest in different ways, coming from hiring committees, colleagues, and individuals conducting performance evaluations. For example, when mothers are working away from the office, it’s often assumed they’re home with their kids. “They get penalized because of [those] assumptions,” says Sophia Huyer, executive director of the nonprofit organization Women in Global Science and Technology in Ontario, Canada, who studies gender equality in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Mothers may also be overlooked for challenging assignments or promotions because of their assumed lack of time or desire, she adds. Sometimes they are told flat out they should be home with their children.

These views can translate into real impacts for working mothers. In a landmark study published in 2007, researchers sent fictitious job applications to employers—in response to marketing and business job openings. The applications were of similar quality, but they differed in a subtle way: Some made reference to children and parent-teacher associations, and some did not. Women who didn’t have children were two times more likely to be called for an interview, as compared with similarly qualified mothers. Undergraduate students were also asked to examine those same applications and make recommendations to a communications company, which—they were told—wanted feedback from young people. Only 47% of mothers were recommended for hire, as compared with 84% of female applicants who didn’t have children. The students also rated mothers to be less competent and committed, and they recommended $11,000 less in starting salary. (The study also looked for similar evidence of discrimination against fathers and didn’t find any; if anything, fathers fared slightly better in the hiring process than men who didn’t have children.)

The view that women can’t be good workers and good parents at the same time is pervasive, an issue further highlighted by a 2018 study surveying more than 50,000 individuals in 18 countries. The researchers found that the factors that most strongly correlated with thinking that women shouldn’t work were beliefs that children and family suffer if mothers work—so-called “motherhood myths”—as well as a belief that “[a] man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family.” These correlations were stronger than for other factors measured—such as gender, education, or political orientation—and the findings were similar across countries, even those with progressive parental leave policies, such as Canada and Sweden.

Most studies of maternal wall bias aren’t specific to STEM fields. So, it’s not clear how much of a problem it is for women in the scientific workforce, but a recent study offers suggestive results: After having children, 43% of new mothers in the study stopped working full time in STEM, as compared with 23% of men. The study didn’t point specifically to maternal wall bias as a contributor, but it’s not hard to imagine that it might have played a role. And Williams—who oversees a hotline that parents can call if they encounter workplace discrimination based on family responsibilities—says that maternal wall bias is clearly a problem in those fields. “We hear a lot from women in STEM,” she says.  

Navigating the system

Universities and other organizations have a responsibility to combat maternal wall bias and provide a level playing field for their workers—for instance, by implementing strong antidiscrimination policies, by providing bias training, and by taking a closer look at hiring practices. At the same time, at an individual level, it can be helpful for mothers—and prospective mothers—to be aware of tools and strategies that may help them ward off biases that they may encounter in the workplace.

With the latter goal in mind, Williams teamed up with other experts—all professional mothers studying bias from a legal, sociological, or business context—to develop online learning modules, with scenarios and recommendations to help women navigate maternal wall bias. The modules aren’t meant to send the message that it’s OK that maternal wall bias exists or that it’s entirely the responsibility of mothers to counteract it. Instead, the purpose is to give mothers, particularly those who are more vulnerable or earlier in their careers, practical steps that they can take to try to control the ways in which people respond to them. 

Among the recommendations: Upon returning from maternity leave, working mothers may consider explicitly signaling their career commitment, for instance by proactively meeting with their bosses to outline short-term and long-term career goals. The modules also recommend that, when they’re out of the office, working mothers make a point of specifying where they are—for example, teaching a class or meeting with a colleague. “When mothers are not there, people often read that as a sign of lack of commitment,” remarked Shelley Correll—the lead author of the 2007 study, now a professor of sociology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California—in one of the website’s videos.

Williams suggests that moms consider putting a sign on their office door explicitly stating where they are and what they’re doing. She doesn’t advocate dishonesty, but notes that absences due to family-related appointments could be described as “out of office meetings.” If the absence is due to a work trip, Williams recommends briefly describing the nature of the trip in an auto-reply email. “While it can be frustrating that we need these tactics, they can help you shape people’s understanding of your commitment to work,” she says. 

Her advice to women in more senior roles is different. “Let others know when you’re leaving the office for a family-related matter,” she tells them. As she sees it, they have an opportunity to set an example, modeling that it’s OK for parents to spend time with children.  

That’s the approach that Escobar has taken. She brought her daughter to a recent scientific conference, for example, and has taken her to professional luncheons. “Talk about your children; bring them to events,” she says. At the same time, she says that it’s important to make sure that your commitment to the institution and your profession “is very much seen”— for instance, by chairing meetings and conferences.

The challenges of maternal wall bias can come from outside the workplace as well. Brittany Kerrigan—a scientific manager at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and the mother of two young boys—doesn’t feel that her career success was overtly hindered because of motherhood. She has encountered maternal wall bias in her personal life though, in the form of imposed guilt about maintaining her scientific career after becoming a mother. “How dare you put your child into a day care facility at such a young age?” acquaintances have asked her. “Why don’t you work part time instead? Don’t you miss your child?”

In her opinion, the best thing she can do is lead by example. “As a mom of two boys, I love that their ‘normal’ will be seeing a woman rise up in her career with her head held high—while still making time to play Thomas the Train and make chocolate chip pancakes on Sunday mornings.”

As for Escobar, she’s taken the lessons she’s learned as a working mother and applied them to her mentoring—doing her part to ensure that the next generation of scientists, especially those in vulnerable early-career stages, have the support they need to help break down the maternal wall. Last year, one of her Ph.D. students came to her office feeling very worried about her career after she discovered that she was pregnant. “First I applauded and gave her a hug,” Escobar says. “Then we made a plan.” They enlisted two undergraduate students and a summer high school student and trained them so that later, during the student’s maternity leave, data collection for her research project would continue. Now back from leave, her student is publishing and “doing marvelously well,” Escobar says.

Escobar adds that allies are critical. “It’s incredibly important to find advocates for you and for your family,” she says. They can support and stand up for you by saying, “Of course she can take care of her child and be a fantastic leader.”