Scaling The Maternal Wall: Why Do We Still Underestimate Working Mothers?

Photo: Courtesy of Jane G.
I was standing at Cipriani’s in New York celebrating another year with my law firm and talking with a brilliant colleague who had just been elected to the firm’s partnership. It was 2006. Over celebratory clinking of glasses, my newly-minted-partner friend whispered to me that she was pregnant with her first child, followed with a quip about how she had timed it perfectly because her partnership was now secure. I was a motherless 26-year-old and this was the first time that I was privy to the reality facing many professional women in America: the attempt to “time” a pregnancy so as not to hurt our chances of ascending the corporate ladder.
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More than a decade and four pregnancies of my own later (that’s a whole other article, I’m sure), the only thing that surprises me about that conversation is that we as a society still fail to openly acknowledge the stunning bias against mothers in the workplace, whether they work in the law (like I did), the service industry, or education. The consequences are dire to all working mothers. The facts are plain: Women are less likely to be promoted than men, and women with children are less likely to be promoted than women without children. In 2014, sociologist Dr. Michelle J. Budig wrote: "For most men, the fact of fatherhood results in a wage bonus; for most women motherhood results in a wage penalty. While the gender pay gap has been decreasing, the pay gap related to parenthood is increasing.”
There is even a term for all of this: the maternal wall. And yet even this is not common vernacular. I didn’t learn about this nearly impossible wall placed in front of mothers until it was built firmly in my path, and I couldn’t figure out a way through. At the same time, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, where a footnote (a footnote!) stopped me in my tracks: “43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers, or off-ramping, for a period of time.”
Photo: Courtesy of Ruby Somera.
Eventually, I became a statistic, deciding that my only way around the roadblock was to “off-ramp,” and leave my lawyering career behind. (I made this choice despite the fact that I was still paying off my law school loans, which, it turns out, aren’t discounted by gender even though the wage gap tells me my salary was.) I started my own company — focused on women and work, naturally — The Riveter. Many women are making the same choice, and “pivoting,” also now-common vernacular. Women are starting businesses at five times the rate of men. And despite the fact that the bias mothers see in traditional workplaces carries over to entrepreneurship in the form of lack of access to funds — for businesses both small and large — mothers are still showing stunning success.
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Anne Wojcicki, the cofounder and CEO of 23andme, has been named the most “daring CEO in America,” and welcomed two children in the very first years of her wildly successful company. Stacy Brown-Philpot has more than doubled the size of TaskRabbit as CEO, all while raising her two daughters. Jennifer Hyman’s Rent the Runway hit unicorn-status (connoting a $1B valuation) while she was nine months pregnant with her second child.
If one thing is clear from all of this, it is that women can grow companies while they are growing humans. And even the mothers who remain in the boardrooms of our modern day Fortune 500s are demonstrating to all that traditional ideas of motherhood as a weakness are flatly wrong. We’ve seen dozens of women simultaneously manage elementary school calendars and guide the margins of the largest American companies up and to the right. Susan Wojcicki, Anne’s older sister, was named CEO of YouTube in 2014, the same year she welcomed her fifth child. When Indra Nooyi was named CEO of PepsiCo in 2006 her second daughter was just 13.
Given all of this, there is only one question: Why does the maternal wall still stand strong? Women are leaders, and motherhood is a strength, not a weakness. Motherhood teaches us to embrace the unknown, to look at each day with efficiency top of mind, to lead with empathy, to embrace the unpredictable, and to communicate clearly. Each of these traits define great leaders, and we should demand more of these characteristics in the future of the American workplace. Trust me, I know. It’s 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday, and my children will be up soon. I’ll spend the day with them before I turn my laptop on again and prepare for the week ahead. This is my normal, and it’s one in which I’ve managed to scale a company from an idea to a national platform with over 50 employees and millions in revenue in less than two years. (And, truly, while growing humans. I am 35 weeks pregnant with my fourth daughter.)
I understand why all those years ago my colleague waited to have a child until she had reached the pinnacle of her career. But I can’t understand why we’re still in the same position. We can do better. We must do better.
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