Being a mother has long been a liability at work. But with work, school, and child care now happening under one roof for so many families, working mothers are at unprecedented risk of experiencing a pandemic-size motherhood penalty.
The struggle faced by working mothers is a key focus of the new 2020 Women in the Workplace Report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, which I co-authored. The report on the state of women in corporate America surveyed more than 300 companies and more than 40,000 employees in professional jobs from the entry level to the C-suite. It found that not only are mothers doing way more at home than fathers during the pandemic, but mothers are also more than twice as likely as fathers to worry that their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities. A vice president interviewed for the report described her concern this way:
“I also worry that my performance is being judged because I’m caring for my children. If I step away from my virtual desk and I miss a call, are they going to wonder where I am? I feel that I need to always be on and ready to respond instantly to whatever comes in. And if that’s not happening, then that’s going to reflect poorly on my performance.”
Working mothers are right to worry. The structure of life for many parents during the pandemic—more to do at home, kids highly visible during Zoom calls, flexible work hours—creates the exact conditions under which biases against mothers get unleashed.
When a working mother worries that she’ll be viewed negatively for blocking off time for child care on her work calendar or missing a call, the pinch she feels is the clash between two deeply held American cultural beliefs—what sociologists call “the ideal worker” and “the good mother.”
The “ideal worker” is an employee who is completely devoted to their job, works long hours, and relies on someone else to take care of family responsibilities. Ideal workers stay late at the office, check email at all hours, rarely take time away from work, and get rewarded for it. The “good mother” is the polar opposite: completely devoted to her family, she prioritizes caring for her children over paid work. Because she is emotionally absorbed by the needs of her children, she is seen as distracted and unreliable at work, and gets dinged for it. The ideal worker and the good mother are ideologically incompatible. You can be one or the other. There is no space to be both.