By: Mary Beth Ferrante
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Growing up we are taught all about the glass ceiling. I distinctly remember sitting in a class my senior year of college that was actually called ‘women in leadership.’ We studied the progress women had already made in the workplace, the ways women were expected to adapt to a “man’s world,” and quite honestly how to join the elusive old boys club.
The glass ceiling is a decades-old term, first used in 1984 when Xennials (1977-1985) and older Millennials were still babies themselves. As young girls growing up in the 80s and 90s, we were bombarded by images of professional women donning power suits with shoulder pads as they forged a path to success. It was an arguably dire time for both fashion and women’s careers. What we saw were professional women appropriating masculinity to look the part and be taken seriously in traditionally male-dominated environments, only to be thwarted as they reached the pinnacle.
We carried these images into our education, surpassing men in college graduation rates in 2014, and entering our professional lives believing we would be the generation to break down the glass ceiling, once and for all. Our determination to focus on the progress at the top is often what ignites and fuels our careers and also for many of us, delayed our desires to start having children. But as we ascend to the heights of our childhood dreams, many women, including myself, find themselves blindsided by the giant wall that rises in the middle of their career, the maternal wall.
The maternal wall not only comes out of nowhere but it impedes our ability to get anywhere near the glass ceiling. Joan C. Williams, Professor of Law and the Author who conceived the phrase, maternal wall, cautions that “women who have been very successful may suddenly find their proficiency questioned once they become pregnant, take maternity leave, or adopt flexible work schedules. Their performance evaluations may plummet, and their political support evaporates.”
This bias that working mothers encounter undermines the advancement of their careers, and unfortunately, isn’t limited to the office. In fact, Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends reports that 60% of Americans believe that children are better off with at least one parent at home. Among those, nearly half feel a child fares better having the momstay home. Clearly, this sentiment is a widely-held cultural belief. And one that can quickly derail careers, even with the best of intentions. Managers, believing they are respecting the time they feel a mother needs with their children, can deny mothers opportunities to take on new projects, to attend influential career-building networking events or to meet with new clients. Recently, a client shared that during her company’s re-organization her manager was excited to share that he had secured her a new position with more flexibility and that was less demanding. However, this new role would mean she would be layered underneath an addition level of leadership. She was devastated and took this role as a demotion. When she expressed her concern, her manager was shocked she wasn’t thrilled. This is an example of the downshift that often occurs for women in their careers. And as a new report from Goldman Sachs on the gender pay gap highlights, while women may choose to ‘downshift’ their careers, but we also need to recognize that many times women are being steered into positions with lower profiles, pay and promotion prospects.
If we don’t address this obstacle smack-dab in the middle of women’s careers, we’ll continue to see minimal progress and rampant gender inequality. According to the World Economic Forum, at the rate we’re going now, it will take another 217 years to achieve gender parity. We must face the maternal wall head-on and scale it inch by inch. Here are four steps to expedite the process:
- Equal leave for new parents – If working fathers take parental leave, we can challenge the notion that males are the breadwinners and females are caretakers. It’s the perhaps the surest way to even the playing field at both home and the office. By supporting working fathers and encouraging them to take their entire parental leave, it normalizes the paradigm that both men and women will be out of the office for periods of time to raise their children. It decreases hiring and promotion bias that is tied to the concerns that a woman of a certain age will not be as committed to their career and will be more unavailable.
- Support for Childcare – Women are still disproportionately tasked with childcare duties. According to Pew Research Center: “One reason mothers are more likely than fathers to say it’s harder to get ahead in the workplace may be that women are much more likely than men to experience a variety of family-related career interruptions. About four-in-ten working mothers (42%) say that at some point in their working life, they had reduced their hours in order to care for a child or other family member, while just 28% of working fathers say they had done the same…”
- Address Maternal Bias – Companies must be willing to address implicit bias in the workplace and train managers to not only identify it but learn about ways to navigate it. If we confront the underlying bias and bring it to the surface, we give women a chance to realize their fullest potential without bearing the load of prejudice and discrimination that can hold a working mother back.
- Flexibility vs. face-time culture – Working mothers need one thing from their employers to successfully integrate work and family: flexibility. By no means is flexibility code for opting out or off-ramping, instead, it allows all working parents, especially new mothers a chance to bond with their baby during a critical time while also acclimating back to office life. It’s a crucial step and perhaps the most important in retaining female employees. If a company strikes the right balance between offering a flex schedule while incorporating key moments for face-time (i.e., networking events, exposure to high-level executives and mentors), the leadership pipeline remains open, and women have the opportunity to advance.
For working mothers zipping along their career paths, having a baby and hitting the maternal wall is quite the shocker. While it’s still possible to shatter the glass ceiling, the maternal wall brings a new set of unexpected challenges that hinder progression. There are ways to climb the wall, but it takes more than just the determination of career-driven mothers. Managers in the office and partners at home must engage and explore the steps necessary to accelerate a working mother’s career while helping her integrate family life. And if we can get women to the top of the maternal wall, it just might be the perfect launching point to propel them through the glass ceiling.