The Mamafesto: We need to dig ourselves out of the 'motherhood trap'

Jul 20, 2015 at 8:05 p.m. ET
Image: Inti St Clair/Getty Images

Motherhood is many things, but could it be a trap for women, especially when it comes to career? That’s the premise of a cover story from a British magazine that looks at how motherhood impacts female workers — both those with children and without — something male colleagues rarely, if ever, have to deal with. Unfortunately this is not a phenomenon seen solely in the U.K.

New Statesman's cover story on the "motherhood trap" looks at the idea that women are at a disadvantage because of their connection to mothering (whether they are actually mothers or not). They focus both on the notion that capitalism at its core relies on unpaid labor — usually from women of color — to sustain itself and that this labor harms women at the expense of their career opportunities and earning potential.

While this particular article focuses on the lack of women in politics in the U.K., the concept of the "motherhood trap" can be seen in many careers and in places all over the world. There are clearly motherhood penalties when it comes to work, whether in the form of pregnancy discrimination, the pay gap due to lost time during maternity leave (and the whole issue of lack of paid maternity leave in the first place for most women) or the stereotype that women workers who are mothers are seen as less committed to their jobs or unreliable because they may be more distracted by home and family concerns. Because of this, they can fall into the motherhood trap, being passed up for certain projects or promotions.

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Childless women aren't immune to this either, however. While they may not be affected while younger, once they hit a certain age, then there's the potential for being penalized for not having children, as employers and higher-ups question what's "wrong" with you. Along this line of thinking, New Statesman notes that many of the childless British female politicians had their childless status used against them. And this phenomenon is seen worldwide: "In June last year, a 35-year-old Tokyo City assembly member called Ayaka Shiomura was heckled during a debate on support for working mothers with cries of 'Go and get married' and 'Can’t you give birth?'. In 2005, when Angela Merkel first seemed to have a chance of leading Germany’s ruling coalition, the wife of her main rival, Gerhard Schröder, commented acidly that she 'does not embody with her biography the experiences of most women', going on to mention childbirth and school admissions."

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You're damned if you do (have kids), and you're damned if you don't. Yet the same is never true for men. The article points to a 2014 study done out of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where researchers found that employers viewed fathers as more stable and committed to their work, since they have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky. Yet women who were mothers were looked at completely differently.

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Workplace culture doesn't stand a chance of changing if actual policies don't change, like paid maternity/family leave, paid sick time and flexible hours. For now, we need to help one another dig out of the motherhood trap, whether by gently or more boldly alerting co-workers when they're falling prey to stereotypical ideals or thought patterns, and supporting one another as women, whether we're moms or not.