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Most managers know to keep gender bias to themselves. Some might think that men are better suited to certain roles and women to others. But virtually all of us understand that expressing those views could get us into trouble on the job. So we keep our mouths shut, just as we curb our opinions about age.
Yet many remain surprisingly open about their bias against one subset of employees: caregivers, particularly working mothers. This type of discrimination has a name: “maternal wall bias”. It takes the form of comments like “Don’t you feel bad leaving your kids at home? Don’t you miss them?” For a long time employees have felt free to make remarks like these without fear of consequences.
Companies have begun paying a steep price for that bias. Working mothers have become more likely to sue their employers for discrimination, and juries increasingly inclined to award them large settlements if gender bias appears to have played a role in derailing careers. According to data collected by the Center for WorkLife Law, in the United States roughly two-thirds of plaintiffs who sue in federal court on the basis of family responsibilities discrimination prevail at trial.
While our research comes primarily from the US, where we have access to case law, there’s no reason to think maternal wall bias is less prevalent in other countries. It’s a global concern, and a growing one.
Discussions of the barriers women face in business typically focus on the double bind that many women find themselves in: High-level positions require managers to be forceful and direct, yet women who demonstrate those qualities are often seen as aggressive and lacking in social skills. This is an important problem but a subtle one – generating micro-inequities that amount to death by a thousand cuts.
Maternal wall bias, however, often feels more like a sledgehammer than a paper cut. One study by Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard and In Paik found that a woman with children was 79% less likely to be hired than one without children. A mother was half as likely to be promoted as a childless woman, was offered $11,000 less in salary, on average, and was held to higher performance and punctuality standards.
The maternal wall defined
Maternal wall bias can take different forms. Prescriptive bias involves “should” statements. Take the chairman of a law firm’s board of directors, who told a female lawyer and shareholder in the firm that women who had their “priorities straight” were “those who relinquished their status as shareholders and worked part time ... to spend more time with their husbands and children.”
A less obvious form is what we call benevolent prescriptive stereotyping. Here’s an example: two lawyers, a married couple, worked for the same employer. When they became parents, the wife was sent home promptly at 5.30 – she had a baby to take care of. The husband, though, was expected to work later than ever – he had a family to support.
More subtle still is descriptive bias, which stems not from assumptions about how people should act but rather from assumptions about how they will act. One mother told Joan that when she went part time, people assumed that whenever she was not at her desk, she was at home with the kids rather than in a meeting. When she was working full time, this woman was seen first and foremost as a professional; once she cut her hours she was seen chiefly as a mother.
How to steer clear of bias
As with many managerial challenges, the first step is to create awareness of the problem. The second, to put it plainly, is to cut it out.
Plenty of resources for devising and assessing training for managers are available. For starters, readers may visit the Workforce 21c website for a set of sample training materials. Below are some managerial pointers for leaders who wish to avoid lawsuits and – lest we forget that the war for talent rages on – the risk of losing experienced employees.
Know the law
That sounds simple; it’s anything but. Regulations vary widely by state and county, and 60-plus local governments in 22 states have passed laws that go beyond federal discrimination laws to include responsibilities to other dependents. Better to know what you’re up against than to be blindsided by a suit.
Leave your opinions at home
Managers are entitled to their views about how families should raise their children, but these opinions have no place in the office. Remarks can be indirect and well-intentioned but still reflect biased assumptions. Women often hear from supervisors or counterparts words to the effect of “You’re back already? My wife could never do that – leave our kids.” This is the kind of statement that makes employment lawyers happy (and rich).
Ask mothers what they want
One professional woman we spoke to found out that her mentor had decided not to give her an exciting new assignment because she had a baby. He assumed that she wouldn’t have the time to devote to the challenge.
There’s a very easy way to find out if a new mother (or father) wants a promotion that will require longer hours or an opportunity for professional development that will involve more travel: ask. Even well-intentioned assumptions can get you into trouble.
Eliminate formal flexibility stigma
In some law firms, lawyers who go part-time still take a “haircut,” say, 60% of the pay for 80% of the hours. In some departments of the federal government, women are readily allowed to work part-time but are then barred from management positions. These are examples of formal flexibility stigma.
Does your organisation conflate schedule with commitment and treat those with flexible work arrangements as lacking in dedication?
Incorporate lessons on how to avoid maternal wall bias into existing training programs – or offer a new one. Maternal wall bias stems from the ways we think: from old-fashioned beliefs about what makes a good mother (someone who is always available to her children) and a good father (a good provider). Extensive research shows that these kinds of assumptions are widely shared and will persist unless they are brought into the light and challenged.
The bottom line of our research is this: don’t lose money over something that you can easily avoid. Maternal wall bias is little understood but at the same time very much out in the open – which means that plaintiffs in these suits tend to win. Legal liability is worth heading off at the pass, by training employees to avoid this new, and increasing, legal risk.
Joan C. Williams is a distinguished professor of law, the UC Hastings Foundation chair and the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. Amy JC Cuddy is an associate professor in the Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School.