What Works for Women at Work – 4 Basic Patterns of Gender Bias and How to Navigate Them at Work [Part 3 of 4]

 Marketing Director   December 2, 2020  Women

This is the third part of a blog post series that will introduce you to four distinct patterns of gender bias, and provide you with strategies women have successfully used to navigate workplaces shaped by subtle bias.

Joan C. Williams, Hastings Foundation Chair, and Director at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, conducted the research in this series. Williams has played a key role in reshaping the debates of women’s advances in the past quarter century, and has authored eight books, most recently What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (co-written with her daughter, Rachel Dempsey).

 This is part three of our “What Works for Women at Work” blog post series.

Third Pattern of Gender Bias: Maternal Wall

The Maternal Wall is by far the strongest pattern of gender bias and was reported by 59% of the mothers that Williams interviewed. Once triggered, the Maternal Wall ushers in very strong biases. If hiring committees are given two identical resumes, but one comes from a mother, the mother is 79% less likely to be hired; only half as likely to be promoted; offered an average of $11,000 less in salary; and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.

This pattern is of a magnitude larger than the other biases covered in the prior blog posts in this series. Part of the Maternal Wall bias stems from assumptions about how mothers will behave in the workplace. However, when women are indisputably competent in the workplace and committed mothers, they’re found less likeable by other women, not men. Biases against women from other women will be explored in the next part of the blog post series.

There are two types of biases in the Maternal Wall pattern:

Hostile Prescriptive Bias

The hostile prescriptive bias is rooted in what people believe a mother should do, rather than what they will do, and is delivered in a hostile manner. An example is this quote given to a woman from her tenure committee: “Why don’t you stop worrying about tenure and just go home and have more babies?”

Benevolent Prescriptive Bias

More common than hostile prescriptive bias, benevolent prescriptive bias  is similarly rooted in what people believe a mother should do, but it is delivered without blatant hostility.

An example is when a female student found out she wasn’t being considered for a highly coveted fellowship, because the man in charge was telling people she just had a baby, so it wasn’t a good time for her. While it’s possible he meant this benevolently, the message is the same: a good mother wouldn’t want to do this.

Strategies to Navigate the Maternal Wall Pattern

When you return from maternity leave, know that you might be triggering some or all of the Maternal Wall biases, especially if you have three or more children. A recent study showed that there is more workplace hostility towards mothers with three children, than with mothers with one or two children.

With that in mind, here are some specific strategies that have helped mothers:

Counter bias with information

If you intend to pursue your career, say so. If you’re willing to travel, say so, especially if your partner is willing to follow you and assist with the baby. Share if you’re the family’s primary earner, because people will assume the opposite if you don’t.

“Tolstoy was Wrong”

When people make comments about your mothering style, such as, “My wife could never leave her kids,” or, “I don’t know how you could work long hours,” you can use the Tolstoy was Wrong solution by saying, “I’m sure that’s right for her (or other people), but this is what works for my family.” You’ll bring subjectivity into their judgement, without starting a confrontation.

The next and final post in our series will cover the fourth pattern of gender bias: Tug of War.