Why the "Maternal Wall" Keeps Working Mothers From Earning More

It's a serious issue unique to women

Updated 06/16/18

Andrey Pavlov / Stocksy United

When we talk about obstacles that women face in their careers, we’re usually talking about the glass ceiling—the hurdle women face when it comes to pay, promotion, and so many different areas of their career. But what we don’t talk about as much is a related issue: the maternal wall. Just like the glass ceiling, it’s holding women back, often skirting the edges of the law to do so.

The maternal wall is the term used to describe a problem uniquely faced by women. It’s the idea that employers are often less likely to hire and promote mothers or pregnant women, due to the time and energy constraints that having children creates. I would argue that in some cases this goes even further, with some employers being more suspicious about hiring young women they think are likely to get pregnant. Now, there are a number of reasons why this is frustrating, unfair, and just plain discriminatory. Here’s what you need to know about the maternal wall, because there’s a good chance it will affect you at some time or another.

The bottom line is: There is no paternal wall. As Chrissy Teigen so cannily pointed out when she faux-mocked her husband, John Legend, for being back at work too soon after their birth of their child, the expectation to be a super dad and super employee just isn’t something men face. Nobody sees a new father and worries that his work will suffer for it—at least not in the United States. And when husbands do take care of their children—their own children—it’s too often dubbed babysitting, like it’s a favor they’re bestowing on the mother.

The fact that men don’t have to think about having children, or about how it will affect their career, is infuriating for any working woman. The fact that women traditionally carry the baby doesn’t mean it needs to affect her career more—remember, many women work up until just a few weeks of birth. But the expectation of caring and bonding with that child—as well as handling the practicalities of taking care of her—falls solely on women. And it’s getting work started again that’s a problem.

The truth is, this discrimination against mothers and pregnant women is often small and subtle. Outright discrimination would be actionable. Instead, it’s more nuanced changes, such as your responsibilities being handed over while your away, another employee promoted over you, being kept away from high-profile, career-changing projects. In other words, they just make it hard. It’s a frustrating phenomenon that you often don't lodge a formal complaint about. And your career suffers.

But sometimes it’s less insidious; sometimes it’s just about a lack of statutory protection and a lack of facilities for new mothers in the workplace. "I was stunned at how difficult it was, even as a tenured law professor," Joan Williams, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law and the founding director of the Center of WorkLife Law told MyDomaine. "Even so, after my second baby, I almost quit.... I thought, Boy, I had it a lot easier than most mothers in this economy and it’s almost impossible for me, so I can only imagine how impossible it is for them. So I said, 'Let’s change conditions for mothers.'" And that’s exactly what she’s doing. She coined the term “maternal wall” and started working on fighting it.

Although this problem isn’t unique to the U.S., it’s undeniably worse here than in many other parts of the world. The fight for paid leave in the U.S. has picked up in the last few years, but it should be a given. The United States is one of the only countries in the world without paid leave, and it’s holding mothers back.

But it’s not just maternal leave—it’s also paternal. Many countries are offering more opportunities for fathers to take time off and be a part of their children’s lives. This not only benefits the children, it also encourages child-rearing responsibilities to be more equally split between the parents. And after parents return to work, some countries—and certain companies, specifically—are allowing more flexibility. Working remotely, flexible hours, more vacation time—these are little changes in workplace attitudes that can make a huge difference to parents. But the U.S. lags woefully far behind.

When you combine good paid leave and a little flexibility with your working hours with an expectation that both parents have to take an equal role at home, then nobody’s career has to suffer.

Women have enough challenges as they progress in their career that the maternal wall feels like adding insult to injury. Men don’t face it, women in other countries are facing it less, and there are clear solutions. We can only hope that changes in workplace mentality and statutory protections will continue to improve the situation—because nobody should be punished for having a family.

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