Being a new mother is hard. Babies come with zero instructions, and yet somehow women are expected to intuitively know how to care for them—as if there’s some mommy switch that automatically turns on just because she grew a tiny human within her womb. (There isn’t.)
If that self-inflicted stress and uncertainty weren’t enough, becoming a mom (for reasons unknown) also invites a mountain of scrutiny from family members, friends, colleagues, and even strangers. According to one recent survey, six out of 10 women said they’d been mommy-shamed for their personal parenting choices. Great.
Among the many tough decisions a new mother has to make is whether she should immediately go back to work after the baby’s arrival or take some time off to bond with her kid. As each person’s situation is unique, researchers were interested in getting a better understanding of how other people perceive those choices, especially as paid family leave is being brought up more and more. Sadly, the study, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, determined that no matter what women choose to do after they have babies, their colleagues look down upon them.
Researchers surveyed 296 participants (137 women and 157 men from the U.S. and the U.K.). The majority of them worked full-time and, interestingly, had no children. The subjects were asked to read one of three versions of an excerpt from a fictitious interview between a female employee and an HR representative; the woman either took maternity leave or declined it, or the excerpt excluded that information. Afterward, participants rated the employee based on job commitment, family commitment, job competence, parental competence, and desirability as a partner. They were also asked to share whether they thought the woman, based on the scenario they had read, deserved some kind of bonus, pay raise, or promotion.
As the study’s authors note, their results determined women were “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” When the fictitious woman took maternity leave, participants—regardless of gender, age, parental status, or nationality—thought she prioritized her family over work and thus was less competent at her job and less deserving of any kind of work rewards. But if the fictitious woman did not take time off, she was considered a bad mother and less desirable as a partner; however, she was also considered more competent at her work and more deserving of a raise.
“When compared with the control group, perceptions of competence, whether in the work or family domain, were never boosted, but only impaired, by the maternity leave decision,” the study states. In short, gender stereotypes are alive and well in 2017.
In an interview with Thekla Morgenroth, a research fellow at the University of Exeter and an author on the study, we asked if there was anything positive we could glean from the study. “It's a pretty depressing situation for working mothers who have to make the decision between taking or not taking parental leave,” Morgenroth says. “The most positive thing about it is maybe that there are some benefits to not taking leave in the work domain. In our study, a woman not taking parental leave was seen as particularly committed to work and in turn as more worthy of organizational rewards such as a salary increase or promotion compared to our control target. So at least we see a benefit in the work context here—but I'm not sure that outweighs the negative consequences in the family domain.”
Instituting parental-leave policies for both men and women could help tackle the pervasiveness of these gender stereotypes, Morgenroth says. “We know from the psychological literature that stereotypes form based on what we observe in everyday life. If we only see mothers taking care of kids, it reinforces the stereotype that they are the ones who are good at this kind of thing and should therefore do it, but if we see mothers and fathers taking care of their children, these expectations will change—and that will be great for everyone, including men who might actually quite like to be more involved in child care.”
Morgenroth also offered this point for women who may feel intimidated by the potential backlash they face in their parental decisions: “If there is one thing that I would like women to take away from this research, it’s that the reactions they encounter don't say anything about their quality as a parent or a worker. Working mothers often experience a lot of guilt because they are seen as lacking commitment to work or family. I'd like them to know that this is the result of very deeply ingrained gender stereotypes—not a reflection of their abilities.”