In my experience the term ‘best person for the job’ has been used to rationalise why people are hired, promoted, rewarded and recognised. This is seemingly justified by skills and attributes listed on paper, or even by hiring for ‘cultural fit’. Yet this term ‘best’ is informed by unconscious subtexts that shape decision-making. It is these undercurrents that define the ‘ideal’ worker and position mothers as deviant, not fitting in, to these characteristics. Where often mothers are described as making the choice to leave paid employment, structural discrimination makes it less about choice and more about gravitating to the least fraught and tensioned decisions; flexible or part-time work, or leaving the workforce altogether. This is you, your mother, your sister, your wife or partner, your friend; who does not have equal opportunities to participate. A mother is not an ‘ideal’ worker.
The ‘ideal’ worker is shaped by some very current, and topical, environmental pressures. Mainly global competition and technology increasing workloads and driving accessibility (Gascoigne, Parry, & Buchanan, 2015). Symptoms include working faster and harder with fewer breaks, longer and unsociable hours, traveling more, and 24/7 availability (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014; Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Where autonomy exists over start and finish times, the ‘ideal’ worker will ‘choose’ to work longer hours, or rationalise work to greater intensity (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). The ‘ideal’ worker understands that ‘full-time’ means overtime, and competitive presenteeism is rewarded and recognised (Crosby, Williams, & Biernat, 2004). The ‘ideal’ worker is someone able to assimilate to an ‘all in’ commitment to work. Leadership potential is measured through their ability to do so. The ‘ideal’ worker is a man, either without caregiving responsibilities, or someone at home to take care of them (Padavic et al, 2019; Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). The ‘ideal’ worker is not a mother with pressures that pull her away.
This ‘ideal’ worker archetype is pervasive through the research into why significant amounts of mothers exit the workforce. It assumes that jobs are a thing apart from the humans that inhabit them, and that organisations are abstract and bodiless (Acker, 1990). You leave your humanity at the door when you step into work. Work is meetings, timeframes, hierarchies, policies, procedures; logical, rational, planned and ordered. A place where compliance with certainty is valued over uncertainty. Home is the embodiment of humanity; love, family, emotion, birth, death, sickness; messiness, uncertainty, and unpredictability. This distinction may go some way to explain why ‘softer’ skills go undervalued in organisations. For example, evaluating and rewarding jobs based on concrete examples of task completion e.g. managing money vs. human relations (Acker, 1990). But we’re not whole humans when we have to make the choice every day between love (family/home) and work (Padavic, et al. 2019). Both men and women feel this anxiety, but mothers ultimately pay the price for it.
The reality is that overlap is not welcomed or encouraged between the separate spheres of work and home. Home mirrors the very chaotic environmental factors that most organisations are trying to dominate. Women describe compensating for, or hiding, their domestic responsibilities (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). As the very embodiment of our leaky and corporeal humanity, maternity and breastfeeding are out of place at work. Mothers comport their bodies to fit in or hide behind stoicism so as not to draw attention (Gatrell, 2019). Raising children and child sickness compromises the distinction between the spheres (Crosby et al., 2004; Haynes, 2008). The ‘good’ mother narrative tells us mothers should be natural, embodied and child-centric. But the pressure to fulfill the ‘good’ mother and the ‘ideal’ worker makes the role of mother and professional worker incompatible.
So it’s easier to comply with pervasive ‘appropriate’ gender roles then battle against them. Being a ‘breadwinner’ is still a socially accepted norm for men. Men can be the ‘ideal’ worker while simultaneously demonstrating devotion by providing for their family (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). They’re judged less, and even applauded for it. Mothers are held to a higher, and irreconcilable, standard. A bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The successful mother, ‘ideal’ worker, means she is an inactive parent and not a ‘good’ mother (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Women role models either don’t have children, the ‘honourable man’ (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014), or looked at with “I don’t want to be ‘that mother’” sentiment.
In an engineered experiment, 260 participants – a mix of male and female – were asked to review CVs/ jobs applications that were essentially identical except for gender and parental status (Benard & Correll, 2010). Participants had to comment, rate and make recommendations on whether that person should be hired, and what they should be paid. Mothers who were successful at work were perceived as significantly less warm and likeable than successful fathers, less likely to be recommended for hire, and had lower starting salaries. Interestingly, females were more likely than males to discriminate against mothers. Benard & Correll (2010) suggest that this could have something to do with the perceived, and real, barriers that women face; a successful women is an unattainable threat to self-concept.
The ‘ideal’ worker pressures, inability to bring humanity into work, and gender norms mean that mothers are more likely to take part-time, flexible work options, or leave paid employment altogether. But these paths are more likely to be a career derailing ‘off-ramps’ for mothers (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Part-time, and/or flexible work, demonstrates lack of commitment to the ‘ideal’ worker and is linked to lower status (Padavic et al, 2019). Being passed over for promotion, having interesting work dry up, doing less responsible duties, being paid less (sometimes on a pro-rata rate but still delivering the outcomes of a full-time worker), are just a few examples of legally ambiguous and damaging practices that leave mothers feeling undervalued and ultimately exiting the workforce. Crosby et al. (2004) calls this the ‘maternal wall’. There is also some suggestion that the gender pay gap may be a motherhood gap (Glass, 2004).
Women’s exit from the labour market is often positioned as a preference for domesticity and motherhood. It’s a ‘choice’ to leave the full-time workforce. But we “disempower women by endorsing their exit as a natural, almost inevitable consequence.” (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014 pg. 58). The systemic, structural and normative discrimination bundled up in how work is organised, and what gets recognised and rewarded, leaves little room for ‘choice’. Long hours work cultures are detrimental to both men and women but women pay the higher price (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Mothers face a ‘take it or leave it’ situation. “Either the mother commits to the working practices of dominant masculinity, that is boundless time schedules, a suppressed personal life and a reduced investment in care, reinforcing what some mothers feel is a destructive work paradigm, or they must accept lower-status work” (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014. pg . 67).
In the last five years the New Zealand Human Rights Commission has received reports of 133 cases of alleged discrimination due to pregnancy or maternity (Human Rights Commission, personal communication, March 29, 2019). This number is disturbingly low and suggests that current methods of defining discrimination against mothers are attached to deviant behaviours of individual actors rather than systems and structures that prevent mothers participating. As Cahusac & Kanji (2014) put it “every adult should be economically active and afforded equal opportunities” (pg. 467). But the focus on interventions such a flexible work policies positions this as an individual concern to balance family responsibilities. It excuses leaders from addressing the underlying challenges for mothers to participate. If women ‘prefer’ to be with their families then leaders cannot be held accountable to that (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019).
Acker (1990) calls for an end to organisations as they exist today “along with a redefinition of work and work relations” pg. 155. But if we want to give real weight to conversations about diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities, I suggest shifting the conversation from work/life balance to work/life blend and bringing humanity into work. Not just for mothers, but for everyone. This means getting comfortable with the visceral, messy, embodied, chaotic, parts of ourselves. A mother is not an ‘ideal’ worker, but she could be something better and that would benefit everyone.
Acker. (1990). Hierachies, jobs, bodies: A theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139–158.
Benard, S., & Correll, S. J. (2010). Normative Discrimination and the Motherhood Penalty. Gender & Society, 24(5), 616–646. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243210383142
Cahusac, E., & Kanji, S. (2014). Giving Up: How Gendered Organizational Cultures Push Mothers Out: How Gendered Organizational Cultures Push Mothers Out. Gender, Work & Organization, 21(1), 57–70. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12011
Crosby, F. J., Williams, J. C., & Biernat, M. (2004). The Maternal Wall. Journal of Social Issues, 60(4), 675–682. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-4537.2004.00379.x
Gascoigne, C., Parry, E., & Buchanan, D. (2015). Extreme work, gendered work? How extreme jobs and the discourse of ‘personal choice’ perpetuate gender inequality. Organization, 22(4), 457–475. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508415572511
Gatrell, C. (2019). Boundary Creatures? Employed, Breastfeeding Mothers and ‘Abjection as Practice.’ Organization Studies, 40(3), 421–442. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840617736932
Glass, J. (2004). Blessing or Curse?: Work-Family Policies and Mother’s Wage Growth Over Time. Work and Occupations, 31(3), 367–394. https://doi.org/10.1177/0730888404266364
Haynes, K. (2008). (Re)figuring accounting and maternal bodies: The gendered embodiment of accounting professionals. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33, 328–348. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aos.2007.04.003
Human Rights Commission. (2019, March 29). 190329 – Response to Request for Information.
Padavic, I., Ely, R. J., & Reid, E. M. (2019). Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work–family Narrative as a Social Defense against the 24/7 Work Culture. Administrative Science Quarterly, 000183921983231. https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839219832310
How do you write in an academic context, while challenging the academic constraints, as well as connecting beyond the walls of academia with an audience that can incite change?
Much of what I’m researching for my PhD is emotive and political. It makes me angry, sad, frustrated as I traverse between the polar opposite worlds of the ‘ideal mother’ and the ‘ideal worker’ and the realities that underpin both. In the middle of these is a space that struggles to reconcile a private, visceral, raw, embodied, ‘leaky’ experience, with that of a public, controlled, ordered, rational and constrained organisation.
I find myself stuck in the in-between. Struggling to understand how I can possibly contribute anything novel to this challenge. Talking about motherhood and leadership seems like a stretch too far, when more simple workforce participation appears an insurmountable obstacle. And how can I write about this challenge when my immersion in research and academia incites formal, structured, writing, the stating of perspectives and yet my personal experiences and emotive connections to what I read pulls my arm from my socket to flail at the expectations placed on mothers, the unconscious biases disadvantaging us, and the systems and structures that are supposed to support new mothers, but instead, undermine our confidence in our new identities, both as a mother and a worker? I need you to FEEL something, not just THINK about it.
And this ‘stuck space’ is not the only constraint. I feel compelled to weave my own experiences into my research and writing but can only do so in a way that treats the characters involved, especially myself, with kindness. And I’m attempting to write about something where more experienced academics, and mothers (!) have struggled to find the words – except to say that you cannot describe to those who aren’t mothers what it’s like.
I walk down a path of politics and activism with my research topic. The issues that I’m approaching – mainly centred around gender inequalities – call into question long held bases of power. Most people don’t like having their legitimacy questioned, especially those who don’t see why they should be called to account. And most people don’t react well when they feel threatened.
Do I mind? Should I mind? Am I brave enough? Will anyone care what I write and share anyway? And if I don’t write and share, what’s the point of doing this research? How do I write to inspire reflection, deep thought, and potentially activism and change?
Feminist issues within academia has historically leveraged more ‘non-academic’ forms of writing to reach a broader audience (Lykke, 2010) and this is where much of my research thus far sprouts from. So I have some licence. But I don’t know what this licence gives me.
I don’t know what the right way is.
Lykke, N. (2010). Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. Routledge.
I’ve started my PhD research with feminism and women’s rights in general, keeping an eye out for maternal issues. I went into this topic naïve. Surely we’ve come a long way with equality? What do we need feminism for? Apparently I’m not alone in this assumption that women actually have equal rights and that the objectives of feminism have been achieved. And that’s part of the problem. The inequities are masked more insidiously. To such an extent that as I was reading about the grip of consumerism, the failed promises that greater opportunities present, and the lack of value placed on motherhood, I was uncomfortably confronted with elements of my own story – of injustices that I had not attributed to my gender or maternal status but had instead owned as my individual problem.
If you’re not familiar with feminism, as I have been, then this definition from Wikipedia (2019) is a helpful starting point:
“Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes”.
Women’s rights movements have given us greater choice. We now have greater access to education and work opportunities outside the home. But as Angela McRobbie (2009) argues in her book ‘The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change’ our work and wage earning capacity now dominates our self-identity and this is a double-edged sword, especially for mothers.
Occupational status is important to women and we are celebrated for what we achieve; money, success, position. It’s a potent and attractive kind of freedom. But this results-orientated approach supports the behaviours of a capitalist ecosystem that makes it impossible for mothers to participate. More specifically, demonstrating commitment and work ethic by being present for long hours in the office, and being on call when the employer needs.
In Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality, Shani Orgad (2019) conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 35 mothers ‘outside of paid employment’. Most of these women had come from senior leadership or director roles, but the structural inequalities and oppressive expectations that these women had repeatedly experienced had prevented them balancing work and family (Ograd, 2019). This compounds both parents. The expectations on the mothers to ‘put in the time’ influences their decision to meld into the domestic default, and fathers working long hours further re-enforces this default.
Harriet Bradley in Gender (2013) gives two main barriers to women’s equality; motherhood and violence towards women. Shani Orgad (2019) agrees that motherhood presents the most significant challenge women face and McRobbie (2009) points out that maternity is seen as the failure of the working girl. Bradley’s (2013) two main barriers are not mutually exclusive. ‘Violence’ includes ‘Normative Violence’ (Bradley, 2013), the demeaning things we don’t even notice because they’re so commonplace, e.g. catcalling, but also workplace discrimination. Examples of these are illustrated through initiatives such as the Everyday Sexim Project (see Vachhani & Pullen, 2018) and this piece of data that Ograd (2019) shares: “In the UK 60,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, a figure that does not account for women who suffer harassment, are overlooked for promotion or loose contracts if they self-employed”. (pg. 43)
So what does this mean for the work that women do undertake? Bradley (2013) refers to vertical segregation; career paths where there are a greater proportion of women (e.g. nursing, care-giving); and, horizontal segregation; where women are more likely to hold junior positions (e.g. admin, clerical duties). All roles that are lower valued and lower paid. But potentially offer less responsibility and greater opportunities for flexibility? According to Statistics NZ (2014), one in three employed women work part-time, compared to one in ten men, and this work is concentrated in the kinds of lower paid, segregated, roles that Bradley (2013) describes. What do you think this means when families are deciding who will stay at home, or cut hours, to look after the family?
We hit roadblocks when we become a mother and these are pre-priming women for inequality In Shani Ograd’s (2019) research the mothers were telling their daughters to not do anything too ‘high-flying’ because one day they might have to give it up. This is not what these mothers wanted for their daughters. I wonder how many intelligent, motivated, and highly educated young women are already considering ‘easier’ career trajectories that would better accommodate their future babies?
When I was thinking about how I frame up this topic the metaphor that kept coming to mind was of a snake eating its own tail. We just keep going around and around as each aspect of this challenge compounds and re-enforces default positions and gender inequalities. We attribute the progress we have made in work and education as the achievement of women’s rights. But new forms of feminism emphasise our individual responsibilities to ‘lean in’ (Sandberg, 2015), and build our confidence (Cuddy, 2012). This illusion of equality, or the promise of it if we’d only try a bit harder, individualises us and distracts from the systems and structures that undermine women, especially mothers in the workplace.
I feel like I have quite a number of rabbit holes to go down in order to do this research justice. Some of this involves unravelling myths around; work/life-balance or work/life blend; the gig-economy, freelancing and entrepreneurship (or mumpreneurs) as a panacea; what we see as ‘perfect’ motherhood; what we tell ourselves about how inclusive and diverse our business are; and ‘faux’ feminist empowerment centred around consumerism. But I’m also uncovering more questions, like; how are men being supported, or not, to create space for women? What did women’s rights movements do, or not do? What is the value that we could place on motherhood? And, what is the impact of work defining our identity on maternal mental health? This is only the beginning!
Bradley, H. (2013). Gender. (2nd Ed.) Polity Press.
Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language may shape who you are. TED.Retrieved 1st March, https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change. Sage.
Ograd, S. (2019). Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality. Columbia University Press.
Sandberg, S. (2015). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf.
Statistics New Zealand. (2014). Measuring the gender pay gap. Available from http://www.stats.govt.nz.
Vachhani, S. & Pullen, A. (2018). Ethics, politics and feminist organizing: Writing feminist infrapolitics and affective solidarity into everday sexism. Human Relations. Vol. 72(1). 23-47.
Wikipedia. (2019). Feminism. Retrieved 1st March. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism