Gender Inequality in the Workplace: Motherhood vs. Career
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be a mother. When, later in life, I’d hear my friends talk about the inconveniences and reordering of the priorities in their lives that having kids caused, I didn’t think much of it. When I had my first child, I was taken aback by the number of sacrifices being a mother calls for — particularly in terms of one’s work and career.
My sister, for instance, had to plan pregnancy around her teaching schedule. She wanted to make sure she wouldn’t have to use her precious sick days until after the baby came.
Then there was my co-worker, who worried that her job — which she had landed just a few months earlier — would be given away if she admitted she was expecting.
Another friend of mine dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, but the cost of her and her husband’s student loans kept her working right up until her due date.
Seventy percent of American mothers who have children under 18 participate in the United States workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Of those working moms, 40 percent are the primary household breadwinners. Working mothers increasingly inform more of the American workplace, yet discriminatory practices and biases persist.
In CentSai’s survey of moms, we saw just how much having a baby could affect a woman’s life. This is especially true when it comes to careers and livelihoods. Half of working moms wanted to stay home with their children. But 41 percent reported that having the baby negatively affected their career paths.
One of these women was Kristen*. She’s a self-proclaimed workaholic who spent nearly 80 hours per week in her Seattle office. Her ultimate goal was to land a promotion within an investment banking company. However, that all changed when Kristen discovered her unplanned pregnancy.
“I had the baby,” she tells me, “but no one from my office congratulated me or asked if it was a boy or a girl. The first email I got in response was, ‘When are you coming back?’”
When Kristen returned to work after her eight-week maternity leave, something had changed. Her colleagues noticed and commented on her more ruffled appearance and her absences to care for her baby. The promotion she had worked so hard for went to a male co-worker whom she had trained and managed.
Eventually, Kristen knew she had to make a change. Two years after the birth of her child, she decided to switch careers completely.
Taking a massive pay cut, she moved to the suburbs so that she could work in financial analysis for a small tech start-up.
“This place was okay with me taking a day off for my son,” she explains. “They had families, too, and a lot of the other managers were women and working moms.”
But what about the women who can’t afford to make the choices and sacrifices Kristen and I did?
Dealing With Gender Inequality in the WorkPlace: Know Your Rights
While I firmly believe that no one should have to give up or diminish their career in order to have a family, the reality is that there is stigma and bias against working mothers (and sometimes fathers, too).
If you work in a field or a workplace that has shown hostility or unwillingness to work with you as a mother, you need to know your rights.
1. The Family Medical Leave and Americans With Disabilities Acts
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) bans discriminating against an employee who has taken FMLA leave, including in the case of caring for sick children, adopting a child, or giving birth.
That said, there are some exemptions. “FMLA only applies to companies that have 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of the worksite,” says Kelly Charles-Collins, an attorney and partner at Smoak Chistolini & Barnett, a labor and employment defense firm.
“However, the American With Disabilities Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Thus, even if FMLA doesn’t apply, an employer may be required to provide leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA if the employee has a qualified disability.”
Exemptions and Requirements
Be aware that even for startups and small businesses, some exemptions apply.
“In some states even employees of smaller startup companies are protected by state initiatives that require startup companies to offer them up to 12 weeks of unpaid, guaranteed job protection for family leave (for example, to bond with a newly born, adopted, or foster child),” says Deryck Jordan, an attorney at Jordan Counsel, which helps startup companies get established and grow.
Generally speaking, if you worked at least 12 months (which can be nonconsecutive) and the employer has 50 or more employees, you may have a claim under the FMLA. Reasons can include bereavement, disability, serious sickness, or medical conditions of a family member.
2. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
An employee may not be discriminated against because of their pregnancy, according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
An employer cannot refuse to hire or fire an employee because she is pregnant.
Nor can the employer take away the person’s benefits, deny them a promotion, or demote them.
Employers must also treat pregnant women with a doctor’s note as temporarily disabled and provide them with workplace modifications. Additionally, any job held by the pregnant woman must be held open for her as long as it would if the employee was disabled.
3. Affordable Care Act
For breastfeeding mothers, the Affordable Care Act guarantees a woman’s right to nurse or pump on a regular basis in a private room other than a bathroom.
4. Combatting Harassment
If you feel that you are being harassed at work because you are a mother, you have the right to pursue legal action.
For example, this may include a manager repeatedly asking, “Wouldn’t you rather be home with your kids?” or an employer refusing to grant you reasonable leave within your contract for family responsibilities. You also cannot be terminated for testifying against a discriminatory employer if you are under subpoena, either.
Stand up for others. If you see discrimination or harassment happening in the workplace, make it clear that this is unacceptable.
How Does America Stack Up?
How does maternity leave in the United States stack up against the rest of the world? Read below about how much paid maternity and parental leave is allotted to new moms around the world, according to the OECD:
|Country||Total paid leave available to mothers|
|United States||0 weeks|
What Can We Do About Gender Inequality in the Workplace?
Having a successful career shouldn’t be reserved for men and childless women.
Women should not be forced to completely alter their career paths because they became mothers. But unfortunately, it can sometimes be an unavoidable reality. What can be done to dismantle these discriminatory practices in the workplace?
“Changing this requires leadership mindset change and buy-in, training — discrimination and bystander intervention training, and policy overhaul,” says Charles-Collins. “It also requires men and women in the workplace to be allies, not bystanders. Inaction is indifference. In our silence lies complicity.”
Final Tips for Expecting Parents
Here are some tips for the workplace if you’re expecting, from Kelly Charles-Collins, attorney and partner at Smoak Chistolini & Barnett, a labor and employment defense firm:
1. Give Advance Notice
The FMLA requires employees to provide 30-day advance notice prior to taking maternity leave.
2. Don’t Overexert Yourself
While you are required to provide a month’s heads-up for leave that is “foreseeable and practicable,” you are entitled to take medical leave in the event that you cannot work due to a serious medical condition. This includes complications during pregnancy.
As complications are usually unforeseeable, you can notify your employer last minute about the need for leave, providing you do so as soon as possible — either the same or next business day.
3. Know Your Pay
As the FMLA only requires unpaid leave, talk with your employer after providing your 30-day notice to understand where your pay is coming from — some employers require employees to choose between vacation or sick days to cover all or parts of their leave, others may offer a number of weeks of pay based on whether you carry short- or long-term disability insurance.
As short- and long-term disability insurance can vary among employers, be sure to look into your company’s respective policy to see if it can cover part of your leave before using personal or sick leave.
4. Dads Can Leave, Too
The FMLA extends to fathers in the sense that they can leave work to care for a spouse who is incapacitated during pregnancy or due to childbirth. Similarly, a husband can leave to care for his wife in the event of complications due to pregnancy, provided he give the same day-of or next business day notice. Besides leave related to the FMLA, new fathers may be allotted additional leave based on a company’s policies and practices.
*Last name has been withheld to protect privacy.