Why Mothers Can’t Win – Birds on the Blog

Why Mothers Can’t Win

As women, we’re all too aware of being judged. Whether it’s our looks, our performance or our decisions to have children (or not) it seems that society has something to say about everything. But have you ever come across the idea of ‘the maternal wall’.

Professor of Law, Joan C. Williams, uses the term to describe what others call competence bias. That’s where, rather than being judged on your personal qualities, you are assumed to be a certain way because you are part of a particular group or stereotype. In this case, just by becoming a mother you are considered less capable than other people.

Comparisons with Motherhood

As staggering as it might be to hear that, in 2018, it’s one of those deep-seated prejudices that most people are unaware of. If you asked them, ‘Do you think being a mother makes women less competent?’ you’d be unlikely to get a no. Still, studies show that there is a bias. Research that Professor Law reviewed showed that mothers were considered on par with the blind and disabled.

Of course, blind and disabled people make great contributions to our society, but there’s no doubting the prejudice against them. People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as the non-disabled. There are many myths around the competency of blind people, and yet with the right support they can easily compete with the sighted. Does motherhood really compare?

What are they thinking?

The short answer is that they’re not. This kind of bias doesn’t come from conscious thought. When you tell your colleagues that you’re expecting, they don’t think, ‘Ah well, there goes her brain!’ It’s all about those snap judgements that our brain makes when it’s on auto-pilot.

The psychology is that the first things we assess about people are their warmth and their competence. It’s hard to get people to accept you as being both warm and competent, people assume that you can’t be nice and smart. Therefore, if you’re warm, you’re less competent. And what’s the cultural stereotype of a mother? Pure warmth. The ultimate in comfort and caring.

Unfortunately, the bias doesn’t stop there. Because mothers are seen to be ‘all about their children’ then if a mother isn’t in the office, it’s assumed that she is taking care of family business or has childcare issues. And if you work long hours as a mother? Well, clearly, you’re cold and don’t care about your children at all. No, there really is no end to the way that women are judged, even by each other.

Identity Crisis

It can be confusing to suddenly find yourself being treated differently. There’s no doubt that becoming a mother is a profound experience that changes many things about you, but no matter how much we talk about ‘baby brain’, it doesn’t affect our competency. Returning to work after children, many women are eager to get back to the job they enjoyed, only to find that they are treated quite differently.

What’s to be Done?

Combatting unconscious bias can be difficult. If it’s unconscious, then it’s happening without intention. If that person stopped to think, they’d make a different choice. But these snap judgments are just that, they happen too quickly to be challenged.

Some companies have taken a serious look at how unconscious bias affects their business and addressed it on a company wide level. If you work for a larger organisation, then it might be worth speaking to HR to see if you can get something like this off the ground at your firm.

If you can’t organise institutional change, then perhaps the best way to deal with this is to ensure that you appear competent. Here are a few quick body language tips which will help with that:

  • Show your willpower. Any time you do something that implies you lack willpower, your colleagues lose a little respect for you. Smoking, overeating and being consistently late will all erode the way your colleagues see you.
  • Don’t be over-confident. Competency is about knowing what you can and can’t do, not holding your hand up for everything and hoping for the best.
  • If you’re in a meeting, sit up straight, make good eye contact and talk a little faster than usual. That all gives off the competent vibe.
  • Don’t sit on your laurels. Keep your eyes on the next big win and talk about that. Competence is about the future, not what you’ve done in the past.

One of the best ways of combatting unconscious bias is to be aware of it, and to challenge it if you see it. Now you’ve read this article, you can watch your own behaviour and stand up for other women if you see them being devalued. Let’s make the maternal wall visible!

Sarah Dixon writes for Inspiring Interns, which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and graduate jobs.

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