Mothers’ Careers Are at Extraordinary Risk Right Now

The conditions of teleworking combined with increased child-care demands are a perfect storm for bias against working mothers.

(moises Saman / Magnum)

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 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.

This clash is the cultural backdrop to the persistent biases that mothers face at work. Research shows that motherhood triggers (false) assumptions that mothers are more focused on their children than on their job and are therefore less competent, committed, and productive at work than fathers or employees without children. This “motherhood penalty” results in mothers getting paid less and being passed over in hiring and promotion decisions.

Bringing attention to one’s maternal status often invites even more censure. “Flexibility stigma” can crop up when employees make use of flexible work arrangements, such as working remotely or working nonstandard hours, to care for children. They can be deemed “bad workers” and suffer negative career consequences including wage penalties, worse performance evaluations, or being “mommy-tracked” into lower-level roles, derailing advancement. Fears about flexibility stigma account for employees’ hesitancy to make use of flexibility programs.

If signaling one’s motherhood activates bias, then working mothers are at extraordinary risk of being penalized during the pandemic. Everything mothers need to do right now to both work and care for their families makes motherhood much more noticeable. Working flexible hours, making use of family-leave policies, holding a child during a Zoom meeting—all of these things clearly mark women as mothers. Though the report focused on women with corporate jobs, research shows that mothers in hourly jobs also bump up against the motherhood penalty. Even before the pandemic, mothers working in the service sector took pains to minimize and conceal their family responsibilities from employers. With schools and day cares now closed, the mother in working mother has never been so visible up and down the class ladder.

In contrast, signaling fatherhood does not have the same effect. Although fathers too can experience flexibility stigma, research highlights how they are often buffered by the “fatherhood premium.” Seen first and foremost as breadwinners (not caregivers), when fathers request to work flexibly, they are often viewed positively for “helping out at home” while still delivering at work. Mothers, however, are seen first and foremost as caregivers (not breadwinners). Their “doing more at home” is often assumed to mean that at work they will be delivering less.

What’s more, social-science research shows that bias gets amplified under conditions of ambiguity—such as working remotely—when it’s harder to see what employees are contributing. When visibility is limited, people are more likely to rely on stereotypes to fill in the gaps. This dynamic sets the stage for maternal bias to occur because stereotypes, like the idea that mothers focus more on their children than their job, can draw a manager’s eye toward the few instances in which a mother fell short, and away from all the other times she delivered. When evaluations are made on assumptions rather than on direct observation and clear criteria, bias often creeps in.

To navigate through these deepening biases, many working mothers are trying to keep their struggles under wraps. The report found that mothers are less likely than fathers to feel comfortable sharing work-life challenges with their colleagues and are more than twice as likely to say they are reluctant to let their colleagues know they have children.

Mothers have always faced these types of biases and stigmas on the job. But this moment’s particular circumstance of parenthood being so visible at work, often under conditions of high ambiguity, leaves working mothers at a supersize risk. The negative career repercussions could set working mothers back for years—maybe decades.

While working mothers face a perfect storm, it’s business as usual for a lot of companies. Among the companies surveyed for the report, fewer than 40 percent have paused performance reviews or adjusted their performance-evaluation criteria to account for the challenges of the pandemic. Only about half of companies have provided employees with information about what their productivity expectations are during the pandemic, and only about a third have asked managers to take specific steps to ensure that parents’ work-life needs are met. Just 8 percent of companies have recommended that managers reduce their teams’ scope of work.

If there were ever a time to reexamine productivity or adjust performance objectives, it would be during a global pandemic. But the report shows that, for the most part, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, mothers are left in an impossible situation and many are considering drastic measures. One in three mothers surveyed has considered downshifting her career, moving to a less demanding role, for example, or leaving the workforce altogether. And mothers who are worried that their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities are more likely to consider downshifting or leaving. But the careers of working mothers who are not contemplating such things are also in jeopardy, given the heightened risk of being penalized and stigmatized during the pandemic.

This looming disaster could still be averted if companies made work sustainable for working parents, and implemented measures to prevent mothers from being unfairly judged.

Making work sustainable would require companies to adjust productivity targets, reset goals, and set realistic deadlines that match the emergency we are collectively living through. Robust paid-leave policies would allow employees to hold on to their job while parenting their children through a pandemic. Companies could address burnout and mitigate the feeling of needing to be “always on” by establishing new collective practices of flexible work that create firm boundaries between personal time and work time, such as no emails or meetings in the evenings. The support of senior leaders is crucial to these efforts. The report found that when employees believe that senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their career or leaving the workforce.

Maternal bias will creep into performance reviews unless companies proactively put in place policies to keep that from happening. They could start by raising awareness about these stereotypes, stigmas, and penalties, so employees and managers can be on the lookout for them. Anything that is ambiguous must be made concrete. Performance-review criteria should be clearly defined and measured, so employees are evaluated based on results and not on how many hours they work. Employees can help ensure that they are being assessed based on facts and not assumptions by tracking their contributions and meeting regularly with managers to discuss their accomplishments. Finally, companies should be tracking hiring, promotions, and layoffs not only by gender and race, but also by parental status. If mothers constitute a disproportionate share of those being passed over or laid off, alarm bells should start ringing.

The pandemic has unleashed social and economic shocks onto American families. Mothers and fathers are taking one for the team, simultaneously working and caregiving at great personal cost in order to shepherd the next generation through this pandemic. But mothers are disproportionately absorbing those shocks—bearing the brunt of a public-health emergency they did not create and cannot single-handedly manage. If companies don’t act, working mothers will pay the price.