Last fall, I was in a meeting with a leader in women’s health, discussing re-entry-to-work programs for new mothers when, out of the blue, she began complaining about a former employee. This employee on their small team had gotten pregnant, the woman said — and it was a problem: “She was way too focused on her pregnancy. It was distracting her. I didn’t think she was going to be committed enough to the job, so I had to let her go.” I looked at her, stunned. This woman — a mother herself — who worked on a range on initiatives to support women was openly and casually admitting to illegal discrimination, against another mother.
In recent months, we’ve seen a flood of stories about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. But the struggles of mothers specifically have been largely left out of the spotlight — even though, as in my conversation with this woman, the bias against them is often casual, open and unapologetic.
Lawsuits indicating the scale and scope of this type of discrimination abound. In a case in Illinois, a woman took her employer to court after he flat out admitted that he preferred to work with people without children. He then denied her promised compensation after she met her sales goals, which he had given to others who weren’t parents. She was eventually fired when she had to reschedule a meeting because of a sick child. (She filed a discrimination claim and won.)
In a case in Colorado, a woman was told openly that she was passed over for a promotion because it was thought that she wouldn’t want to relocate or work the 50 to 60 hours a week the promotion required. She was told it was because she “had a full-time job at home with her children.” Her company made this determination without consulting her to find out what she actually wanted. She won her case, too.
“Bias against mothers is one of the strongest forms of bias against women,” said Liz Morris, the deputy director of the Center for Worklife Law, a research and advocacy group that focuses on gender and racial equality in the workplace. “I think that there’s a lot of people who would agree that sexual harassment or discrimination in general are wrong who may discriminate against mothers or may accept discrimination against themselves in a way that’s really harmful.”
While mothers themselves are