When my son was seven he got in trouble at school for telling his classmates that his Mom took an airplane to work. “Mustn’t tell lies”, said his teacher. But in fact I did take an airplane to work, twice a week. My job as a Human Resources Director for a large insurance company required me to be in Hartford 2 days a week. When I found out I made her apologize to him in front of his class. And I gently suggested that she remember that many women had jobs that required business travel, just like many men.
I’ve never regretted being both a full time professional and a full time Mom. I say that because there’s no such thing as a part time parent. Every (good) parent is a parent every moment of every day. My career and my earnings have provided incredible benefits, opportunities, insights, and experiences for my children as well as for me. But according to a recent article in the New York Times (September 6, 2014, Claire Cain Miller) “One of the worst career moves a woman can make is to have children”.
The article goes on to outline recent research that shows that women are “less likely to be hired, to be perceived as competent at work, or to be paid as much as their male colleagues with the same qualifications”. Men who have children on the other hand “are more likely to be hired than childless men, and tend to be paid more after they have children”. So Motherhood comes with a penalty and Fatherhood with a boost. Not a great surprise to most women.
Why? Employers still anticipate that women will shoulder a disproportionate share of child care responsibilities (in too many cases they are not wrong) and therefore will be unreliable and more likely to perform poorly (in most cases they are decidedly wrong). Alternately, they view fathers as more stable and highly incented to succeed. They believe that having children causes women to be distracted and conflicted while they are at work; while having children provides men with focus and motivation. Women will want time off; men will work harder. Stereotypes and anecdotes drive decision making.
As an HR professional I know that some of the penalty can be traced to decisions that women are more likely to make than men, like taking time off to be at home full time and choosing “family friendly” jobs that don’t require travel, overtime, evening activities and long hours. These decisions have both immediate and long term negative impact on advancement opportunities and earnings. But the data shows that this explains only a small percentage of the differential, and that the penalty happens even for women who make none of these choices. I have personally counselled managers in hiring, performance assessment, and compensation situations where the applicant’s or employee’s parental status was one of the unspoken criteria in deciding what action to take. And unfortunately too often I was unsuccessful in ameliorating their bias.
As a Mom, I know I had to work harder to be sure my superiors never thought my children would ‘get in the way’ of me doing my job well. I was worried about taking time off for school activities, doctor’s appointments, even illness. My male colleagues didn’t seem to have these worries. They had wives. They proudly displayed pictures of their kids. They boasted of coaching a Little League or soccer team on weekends. This humanized them, made them look like a good guy, while still being a strong boss and smart employee. When people saw my photos they simply said things like “don’t you wish you were home”, or “I bet you missed things like their first steps”. I used vacation days for teacher’s meetings, well baby check-ups, and ear infections. They used them for vacation and golf games. They had wives.
Yet as I rose through the ranks it became easier to leave early and do a conference call on the way to (and sometimes during) a ball game or school activity. Yes I was that Mom walking the sideline with my phone, trying to be present at two places at once. I could arrive late to work because I was taking a sick child to the doctor’s. Call my Assistant, move a few meetings, work late that night to catch up on emails or write that report. I had options.
Which brings me to perhaps the worst aspect of this bias – the disproportionate impact on poor families. Low income women experience the greatest penalty and low income fathers the least benefit. So those that can least afford this discrimination, lose the most – “6% in earnings per child, two percentage points more than the average”. Hourly workers lose pay and risk termination when they miss work. Their jobs often come with no paid sick leave or vacation. Quality affordable child care is nearly impossible to find. And schools do little to help – e.g., scheduling frequent ½ days, having elementary school children start later than older students, and not providing after school care.
The research suggests that the solution lies with progressive national policies such as high quality publicly funded child care, paid parental leaves, and incentives for men to take parental leave. But we also need employers to accept that most employees are likely to be parents at some point during their careers and that more and more parents are sharing responsibilities. I would like to think that strong HR professionals advocating for family-friendly policies and benefits (like on-site child care) and pay and advancement equity, and successful women – and men – who have proved that parents can balance work and family responsibilities can be part of the solution as well.
Joanne is a retired Chief Human Resources Offices who currently consults with companies on using data and analytics to improve their talent management practices. She is also the Chair, of BCWAC’s Communications Committee.