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Micro-Inequities for Moms and How to Dismantle Them

It’s tough to be a working parent, and it can be even tougher when inequalities in the workplace hinder professional progress. Even well-intentioned organizations and teams can fall into the trap of these micro-inequalities: those little things that add up to a less-than-welcoming culture for moms. Here are a few of the most common—and how your organization can combat them.


Not Being Credited for Ideas

Regardless of parenthood status, one of the most common micro-inequities women report in the workplace is losing credit for ideas, usually to a male colleague. The typical progression of events is as follows, with minor variations:

  1. A woman presents an idea.
  2. The idea is brushed over or outright dismissed.
  3. Later, a man presents the same or a nearly-identical idea.
  4. The idea is praised and built on, crediting the man.


The results are frustrating and familiar. One study in the Harvard Business Review reported that a status “bump” and perception of leadership happened for men who spoke up about ideas, but not for women. In scientific fields, women are nearly 60% less likely than their male counterparts to be named on patents linked to their research, and women are less likely to receive credit for their work in general, at every level. Managers and colleagues alike can work to draw better attention to the original source of ideas, amplify others, and publicly (and firmly) reiterate credit where it is due.


Gendered Perceptions of Parenting

There’s a paradox when it comes to working mothers, even today. Women tend to take on more of the work of childcare and other “family” work—and are expected to do so—but they’re also penalized professionally and viewed as more “unreliable” because of those commitments. Research has found that 72% of people believe women, but not men, are penalized in the workplace for having children, while 41% of workers believe mothers are less devoted to their work than those who aren’t mothers, and 38% judge mothers for needing more flexible work schedules.


Where men are often celebrated and praised—both in the workplace and in the wider culture—for caring for their own children, women are often penalized. Workplaces that want to combat this trend and retain talent can address issues in numerous ways. Generous leave policies, flexible scheduling that is encouraged and built into the culture, and management setting a good example are just a few ways to combat this micro-inequity and support working mothers.


Informal Networking and Gendered Spaces

In business relationships, there’s a longstanding stereotype of informal networking that has a gendered overlay to it. The classic image is of the “good ol’ boys” networking over a golf game, a pickup basketball game, in a gym locker room, etc. Despite the fact that many women do enjoy activities like golf, these traditional activities still tend to have a gendered bias; in fact, there are still private, elite golf clubs that exclude women altogether. The imbalance in childcare also can tilt the balance against working moms, who may lack the time, energy, or interest in these kinds of time-consuming activities.


As a result, women can find themselves excluded from rapport-building activities and come into meetings at a disadvantage. This can also connect to what MIT Sloan researchers call “meeting-before-the-meeting”: employees “pre-selling” their ideas to bosses in more informal settings before a formal meeting. Teams looking to remove this inequity should look into ways to create more inclusive activities, and managers should take active steps to ensure that individuals are not penalized or left two steps behind at formal meetings if they are unable to be included in “pre-meeting” or informal networking.


Casual Conversation Topics

Moms are more than just moms – they’re professionals, colleagues, and individuals with a wide range of interests and personality traits. However, many working mothers soon find themselves locked into the role of “mom” even in the workplace. In casual conversation, they’re likely to be asked about “domestic” topics: their children, cooking and gardening, and the like. While many mothers are happy to talk about these topics, many others may feel stifled if that’s the only thing they’re ever casually asked about.


There’s no policy change that can address this, but leaders can actively work to ensure that their team’s mothers are included in non-domestic conversations. Take cues from each individual, rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.


That last point is, in fact, the center of it all. Working mothers are unique individuals, just like any other employee demographic. By being aware of the particular cultural signals and concerns around their place at work, HR leaders can help to ensure their organizations are truly welcoming and supportive of mothers at all stages of life and work.


By Dawn Russell


About the Author

As Managing Director of Executive Search for Blue Rock Search, Dawn brings her Social Talent Black Belt skills and deep analytic abilities to bear, developing quality talent pipelines for a variety of diverse industries focused in Customer Experience. Dawn is the only Director of Recruiting at Blue Rock Search that is equally knowledgeable in three of our four specialties including: Customer Experience, Franchise, and Human Resources. The very first official hire at Blue Rock Search, Dawn has become an indispensable resource for the entire team.

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