Why Flexible Work Weeks Exclude Working Mums

photographed by Erin Yamagata.
When Sophia Petrov*, 39, was pregnant and showing with her second child, she noticed one day that she was constantly doing prep work for meetings with new and existing clients but was never actually asked to attend. Eventually, her boss pulled her aside and told her, "We don't want the clients to see your stomach and get scared. I'm sure you understand."
For many working mums in traditional, corporate work environments, these types of microaggressions are common and are just some of the familiar manifestations of the ‘motherhood penalty,’ or the systematic disadvantages encountered by working mothers related to compensation and perceived competence in the workplace. And, because these upsetting realities exist alongside the contrasting ‘fatherhood bonus,’ for many women, they are as infuriating as they are incapacitating.
Recently, new studies and trial runs have demonstrated that four-day work weeks boost productivity and, similarly, that flexible work schedules 'are the future.’ And yet, these findings don’t seem to apply to working mothers or mothers-to-be. While mums generally must opt-in to the ‘mummy track’ — or professional arrangements to accommodate a new baby or young children — too often these preparations end up signalling to employers a perceived lack of commitment and serve only to harm their work standing.
“When my oldest child was one-and-a-half, and I was pregnant with my second child, I politely asked if I could work from home every Friday or every other Friday,” Petrov, who works in public relations in Northern California, told Refinery29. She explained that much of her work was done on the computer and meetings were often held on the phone, so she thought the arrangement would be manageable — particularly since Petrov had a two-hour daily commute and her managers had work-from-home (WFH) arrangements. “However, my boss refused, saying that she didn't care about my ‘life issues,’ and if she let me work from home even occasionally, then she'd have to make the same accommodations for the junior employees who were in their early 20s, single and child-free and living a few blocks away from the office in the city.”

One of the admins enjoyed coming up to my cubicle and telling me graphic stories about stillbirths and miscarriages.

Petrov recalls another job she held while pregnant with her first child, where the environment was particularly toxic and employees quit frequently. “One colleague used to cry in the kitchen. Another suffered a concussion at home but showed up for work the next day anyway, walking kind of wobbly. One of the admins enjoyed coming up to my cubicle and telling me graphic stories about stillbirths and miscarriages,” Petrov said. “I ended up being late or missing many prenatal appointments because I couldn't get out in time and was terrified of making ‘trouble.’"
Though her experiences are her own, Petrov is certainly not alone. These kinds of prejudicial behaviours are part of a larger, ‘anti-mum bias’ in many workplaces. It is not uncommon for working mothers to file discrimination cases after being passed over for promotions or denied promised compensation, or after being punished for rescheduling meetings because of a sick child. However, though these aggressions are undeniably toxic, the double standard of workplace scheduling is particularly worrisome — especially as more and more workplaces adopt WFH policies or other methods of flexible scheduling — because, when it comes to working mums, scheduling still mostly feels like a trap.
Too often, being a working mother presents a false dichotomy: be either the loving, devoted mother or the cold-hearted careerist. “In the conversations that I have had with my manager about getting promoted, he has asked me if my family (meaning my kids and husband) would be ready for me to become manager,” Suzy Lopez,* a 39-year old graphic designer and communications coordinator based in Orange County, CA, told Refinery29. “I got really offended because he was implying that if I became manager I would be working longer hours and not be an attentive parent.”
Lopez explained that she has continuously asked for a flexible work schedule, particularly when her kids were sick or had early schedules, but has been denied. Like Petrov, Lopez feels this is unfair: “A lot of the work I do is online. I can login from any computer and design a brochure, poster, email, forms,” Lopez said. “I can communicate with everyone in the office through email, and my work is not dependent on anyone else in the office.” Though she has been frustrated by the back-and-forth on this issue, Lopez does not feel that her scheduling requests have affected her at work.
The resistance of many employers to be more accommodating to their employees with children is as damaging as it is frustrating. In fact, a recent study from the University of British Columbia found that working mums can actually earn more money than women without kids — but only if they have a certain degree of flexibility in their jobs. And yet, for so many professional mothers, vying for workplace flexibility while trying to advance their careers is a losing game.
Both Lopez and Petrov feel there needs to be a change in corporate culture to better accommodate working mums and their schedules. According to Lopez, doing so would help her and other professional mothers succeed in their fields. “I am now more productive and a better multitasker as a mother of two small children than I was before I ever had kids,” Petrov said. “I wish mothers weren't penalised for having kids because their contributions as employees can greatly benefit their teams and companies.”

I am now more productive and a better multitasker as a mother of two small children than I was before I ever had kids.

Lori Mihalich-Levin, author of Back to Work After Baby and the founder of Mindful Return, has dedicated a considerable portion of her career to helping working mothers navigate their careers after maternity leave. According to Mihalich-Levin, the most insidious damage of the motherhood penalty is to new mums’ psyches. “Simply knowing the penalty is there, seeing our colleagues' raised eyebrows, and hearing them question our commitment to our work, shakes pregnant and new mums' confidence to the core,” Mihalich-Levin told Refinery29. “Even when their own skills clearly haven't diminished and their commitment to their careers hasn't changed at all.”
When it comes to scheduling, Mihalich-Levin feels similarly to her fellow working mothers. “Particularly in this technologically advanced age, where it is possible to do so many things from anywhere, the main impediment I see is an ingrained commitment to that face-time heavy, butt-in-chair ‘ideal worker’ culture on the part of certain managers,” Mihalich-Levin said, adding that work cultures that have not de-gendered their flexible work options penalise mothers. “As with the stigmas that come with maternity leave, real change will happen when it is normal for new mothers and new fathers to take parental leave and to be vocal about using flexible work options.”
According to Mihalich-Levin, when working mums request adjustability in scheduling, the ask is associated with ‘caregiving,’ which is perceived as being at odds with professional success and with the ‘ideal worker.’ In her view, one of the most important things employers can do to allow working mothers to succeed in the workplace is to eliminate gendered and ‘primary caregiver’ parental leave policies. “Higher engagement levels by dads in the care of children from the beginning of their children's lives has been found to dramatically increase the mother's chances of professional success,” Mihalich-Levin said.
Ultimately, there remains much work to be done, but Mihalich-Levin believes there are many ways to navigate scheduling and other workplace dynamics as a working mum. “A corollary to the idea that flexibility can actually heighten productivity, is that parenthood actually makes us better in our professional roles,” Mihalich-Levin said. “There are so many skills we gain as mothers that are directly applicable in our jobs. Let's shout those skills from the rooftops and let our managers know we have them, not only to combat our own shaken confidence but to turn on its head that perception that we are somehow less committed to our jobs as mothers.”
*Name has been changed.

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