Speaking of Women's Rights: Home Economics 101: Why Improving Mothers' Bottom Line Is Good for Everyone

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Home Economics 101: Why Improving Mothers' Bottom Line Is Good for Everyone

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that Mothers’ Day is coming up; the marketers have made sure of that. And no doubt about it, mothers are good for marketing – both marketing about mothers (treat Mom to brunch! buy her a spa treatment!) as well as marketing to mothers. It’s a fact that women are more likely to be the decisionmakers for much consumer purchasing, from grocery decisions to family health care.

But even as moms wield some power in the marketplace, and increasingly, politically as well (witness the rise of groups such as MomsRising), when it comes to the workplace, being identified as a mother still is a double-edged sword. Or perhaps just a sword.

This is an issue close to home – not just because of Legal Voice’s work, but also my own work experiences. When I left a private law firm to teach, a partner said, “Oh, that’s great; you’ll be able to be with your child more, working part-time.” Never mind that, actually, I had accepted a full-time teaching position – more variable work hours, but definitely full-time.

And another recent example: I received a voicemail on a Friday. The caller, a colleague at another organization, said something to the effect, “I know you have kids so you might not be there on a Friday afternoon, but ....” As it happens, because of budget issues, our office is closed on Fridays – for everyone, not just those of us who are parents. But this person did not know that. Yet his assumption, simply because I did not happen to pick up the phone, was telling.

These may be relatively benign examples of a form of gender stereotyping – so-called “benevolent” stereotyping – but stereotyping nonetheless. And such stereotyping can have real consequences for women’s employment opportunities.

If you are a mother, employers are more likely to perceive you as not a hard worker, or not interested in work opportunities. (While this is true for both male and female parents, but the effect is more pronounced for women.) For example, people assume when you are out of the office that you must be attending to family responsibilities, rather than at a work-related meeting, or might assume a working mother would not want to relocate to another city, even if it would mean a promotion. Even though the employer is not acting out of hostility, such stereotyping can still result adverse employment actions. (See the E.E.O.C. guidance discussing this issue here.)

And, you might ask, so what? Especially in this economic environment, shouldn’t employers be able to hire the person who will be more likely to put in those extra hours? The one who won’t be running off to have a baby or needing those sick days to take their kid to the doctor?

That all may be true if the employer is acting based on real facts and individual circumstances. But more often than not, those decisions are based on assumptions, not real experiences with that particular worker. Here are just some of the reasons why gender stereotyping in the workplace should be everybody’s issue – not just a mothers’ issue:

  • Even young women without children are often paid less or not offered jobs, simply because an employer may believe (rightly or wrongly) that they are more likely to get married, take leave from work, and have competing demands on their time. So listen up, single ladies – you may think you’re different from the stereotypical woman, but chances are, your employer may not view you that way.

  • These stereotypes and other obstacles women face in the workplace result in a 77-cent wage gap – the amount that the average woman earns compared to the average man.

  • When you start out behind, it’s hard to ever catch up: The wage gap translates to a lifetime of lower earnings and reduced long-term assets – over $431,000 in lost pay over a 40-year career, not counting the concomitant ripple effect on Social Security and other retirement benefits. (Statistics from this report by the Center for American Progress.)

  • More and more households depend on contributions of women to the household income. Over 12 million families with children rely primarily on women’s earnings, with more than a third of mothers in most states providing at least half of a couple’s earnings or single working mothers.

  • If we closed the wage gap, the United States’ GDP could increase by 9 percent.

  • Without the wage gap, and with workplaces where women truly have equal opportunity to be hired, advance, and succeed, guess who would then have more income to spend on groceries, consumer goods, and other purchases that drive our economy? You got it: mothers. (And, of course, other women, and their households, too.) Increase their purchasing power, increase businesses’ bottom lines.

    So if you choose, buy a card for your mom, or for another mom, for Mother’s Day. But go ahead, be selfish too: support policies that make it possible for all women to have equal opportunities in the workplace. After all, it makes economic sense.