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The Working Mommy Trap

by E. J. Graff

You can almost set your watch by it. Every year or two, the elite media declare yet again that feminism is dead, and that most women yearn to stay at home and tend babies. The most recent incarnation of this story came in the September 20 New York Times, which in a front-page feature described young women who attend Yale—and who (gasp!) say they might step out of the job market for a few years while their kids are young. To say the highly anecdotal trend story was full of holes would be to put it mildly; its few “facts” and most of its presuppositions have been blown apart by the blogs.

And yet such stories keep on coming; The New York Times alone has run similar stories prominently (once on the cover of the magazine) three times in eight years. In each case, the message is quite explicit: Women don’t make as much as men because they don’t want to—so stop whining already. But this focus on women’s “choices” masks a far more profound story. The real trend isn’t choice; it’s the lack thereof. Most women have to work, because they and their families need the paycheck. But they’re also treated unfairly on the job. They’re underpaid, underpromoted and unwillingly sidelined if they have kids. As a result, women working full time (not stay-at-home moms, not consultants, not part-timers) still make only 77 cents to a full-time working man’s dollar—a gap that has not changed for more than a decade. Is that because they “chose” to make work at lower-paying jobs so they could meet the kids at the school bus each day?

Try talking to actual working mothers, and you’ll find that many say no, their choices were not freely made. Rather, one day, they looked up and realized they’d been “mommy-tracked” against their will.

Simply because they said they were pregnant, or because they’d taken a few months’ maternity leave, or because they asked for a few years of flexible hours, women are demoted or outright fired. They’re refused promotion-track projects. They’re passed over for promotions involving late shifts or overnight travel, on the assumption that they’ll say no. Or they’re no longer given the specialized work they’d done before, and as a result their pay is downgraded. Or they’re condescended to as unreliable, untrustworthy and disloyal.

To get a flavor of this treatment, look at a new database of a decade’s worth of sex discrimination cases in which women prevailed: www.wageproject.org. (Full disclosure: I’ve helped pull together this still-incomplete database, and collaborated on a just-published book based in part on this data.) Women have been filing more pregnancy discrimination charges over the past decade, according to private employment lawyers and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regional attorneys alike. These women—angry that they were fired because they got pregnant, or mistreated simply because they were mothers—work as liquor store clerks, waitresses, airline ramp agents, executive secretaries, state troopers, stockbrokers and university professors. When women win these lawsuits, it’s often because a manager actually said that a woman can’t do the job if she’s pregnant, or that the company has a policy that women must leave after a certain month, or that moms should be home with their kids. The idea that moms shouldn’t work is that commonplace: Managers don’t even realize that broadcasting their bias is illegal.

Of course, only a very small percentage of women bring formal charges, and far fewer of those actually sue their employers. Lawsuits are therefore just the tip of the iceberg, a hint of how much mistreatment lies below the surface.

For 30 years, social scientists have been studying how insidiously bias affects behavior, even when an individual thinks of himself or herself as fair. Stereotypes are impossible to avoid absorbing from our culture: How could anyone who watches TV fail to take in the concepts that black people are dangerous, gay men are flighty, Muslims are terrorists, or mothers are unreliable at work?

Unless those deeply ingrained stereotypes are consciously overridden, the brain will select evidence that fits those pre-existing beliefs, and grip it more firmly than any contradictory evidence. Consider these “natural” deductions, which easily arise in the mind that’s not alert. A working father is late: He must have a breakfast meeting or a traffic problem. A working mother is late: She must have child care trouble. Even when a woman’s efforts on the job yield strong results, that fact is erased by the presumption that she’s too preoccupied with childrearing to handle anything else.

Here’s the underlying, unspoken line of thinking that holds women back: Being a mother (but not being a father) is a full-time job. So is being a doctor, lawyer or health executive. No one can successfully do two full-time jobs. A lawyer might be able to juggle many complex cases in various stages of research and negotiation, or a grocery manager might be able to juggle dozens of delivery deadlines and worker schedules, or a doctor might be able to track the data relating to a dozen near-death patients—but a fleeting thought about a daycare drop-off will cause that same woman’s on-the-job reliability to evaporate.

“Working mother” is a phrase akin to “deadbeat dad": Both imply someone who is not fulfilling her or his social responsibilities. And so who can be surprised that, according to studies, when men have children, their wages go up—and when women have children, their wages go down? A 2003 Government Accountability Office study found that, among full-time workers, for working fathers, each child increases earnings about 2.1 percent—while for working mothers, each child subtracts 2.5 percent from earnings.

Unexamined stereotypes are like computer viruses: Once they’re clicked on—no matter how unintentionally—these unspoken ideas start to dismantle women’s careers, which then require a painful amount of time and effort to repair and rebuild. That’s mommy tracking in action: Choices are narrowed, and the wage gap is widened.

Which is precisely why the Times article and those like it are especially insidious. By publicly reinforcing such untested assumptions, the Times —so disproportionately influential in our nation’s sense of itself—reinscribes those stereotypes more deeply into American brains, making them seem “natural.” The Times is irresponsibly spreading a dangerous rumor, a mental computer virus, that costs women money—and sometimes their ability to support their families.

More than four out of five American women will give birth at least once in their lives; still more will adopt. As a result, they will suddenly be faced with unfair, shortsighted or even illegally discriminatory choices on the job. If they have enough money, they can bail out. If they’re so deeply outraged that they’re willing to risk their careers, they can sue. If their families need their paychecks, they can grin and bear it. Those are their real choices.

Someone break the news to the New York Times.


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