Credit: Penn State/pennstatenews on Flickr, under Creative Commons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Sometimes it’s sunny and pleasant when you announce your pregnancy and sometimes it stays that way for a while. But women often feel an environmental change when they become mothers. It’s often hard to pinpoint when the clouds started to roll in–when you came back to work, when you got a new boss, when your job changed? In some cases it’s intentional; in many others, it’s just an employer’s reflex, an ingrained attitude that may not be seen as harmful or off base. Whether you’re a newly minted parent or you’re already a master at checking homework, you may have asked yourself this question: "I get good reviews, so why do I feel I’ve been written off?"

You’re not hallucinating. Studies show that people do see mothers differently: as nice but less competent. Even young people raised in a more recent era when mothers worked (very ably) in a variety of jobs have this attitude. In 2004, Princeton researchers gave a group of students a survey that asked the following question: "We’d like you to read the profiles of three consultants at McKinsey and Company’s Manhattan office and give us your first impressions . . . Imagine you’re a client, trying to choose a consultant from very little information." They asked these students to rate fictional consultants on a variety of traits (like capable, efficient, organized, sincere, warm, trustworthy).

Among the characters were Kate and Dan, professionals described identically except for their gender. The description went on to say that Kate/Dan was a new parent and telecommuted to work three days a week. The results? Kate was rated least competent of all workers, although she scored highest for warmth. Curiously, Dan, a father who worked at home most days, received the second-highest rating for competence (the only person rated more competent than Dan was the female professional without kids). The only conclusion we can draw: Flexible work arrangements don’t ruin your image at work–but motherhood might.

‘Are You Still Committed?’

Why do people think this? "You have too much to do at home–you have two jobs now. Aren’t you going to cut back at work?" asks your neighbor, watching you take out the trash. "You’re still taking business trips? The kids must miss you a lot," your in-laws say. Their assumption: that you’re working under duress, that you’ve become a harried, hare-brained (but "warm") victim of working motherhood.

Even when they come from people you like, these lines can rankle. The bigger problem? The classic lines at work, the ones rarely uttered aloud by your boss and colleagues, but floating overhead in a giant thought bubble (almost visible when you return from the pediatrician at noon): "Are you still committed?"

We’ve heard a great deal about the "glass ceiling," but in her copious research

Joan Williams, director of work/life law at UC Hastings law school, shows that most women never knock into it because they never get near enough. Instead, they run up against what Williams has named the "Maternal Wall," the assumption that any woman who is a mother is the primary parent, and unable to commit to her job in the way a father could.

When women take pregnancy-related leaves, they generate real costs which their employers may not like, but those costs are finite. What can seem like a bad deal to bosses is the ongoing volume and uncertainty of child-related downtime that takes workers out of commission (child-care snafus, sick kids, school-related obligations). Too many people assume women will do all these things without the help of their husbands. So working moms can begin to look like pretty undesirable employees and these unchecked assumptions erect a wall that too few women get over.

Ditching Assumptions

It’s time for employers to face the facts and ditch the assumptions about the effect of motherhood on work. "On average, the depletion that is so feared by organizations . . . does not exist," organizational behavior expert Nancy Rothbard told us. Rothbard, who teaches at Wharton, studied a sample of 790 employees at a large public university to explore how engagement in family impacts engagement at work. Her study found that when women had stress at home they were more engaged at work and (consistent with the research that multiple roles are good for people) that a good family life gives women more energy to be good workers.

Rothbard concluded: "I suggest to organizations that their beliefs about women may be wrong. As a manager, don’t make the automatic assumption that a woman with a rich family life is not going to be engaged in her work. She could be very engaged. Her time may be limited, but her focus may be very much all there."

In our survey of more than 1,100 women, we heard story after story of how women lost jobs they loved or saw them radically altered when they became mothers. For some, the shift happened immediately, for others after many productive years as a working mom. As one woman noted, "Many of the changes were not ‘formal’ but informal. For instance, because I took maternity leave, it was more difficult for my office to provide a rating. As a result, I ended up with a lower rating, which resulted in a lower performance bonus. Similarly, I also found a lot of subconscious expectations that I would want to go part time or be less aggressive in my career trajectory because most people expected me to leave (my staying on in my job was considered unusual)."

Note that not one of these women asked for anything special. No one requested flexible hours, a day to work from home or reduced travel. Yet, these "team players"–hard workers all–were subject to what amounts to postnatal hazing: Their jobs got harder, the ante was upped when they became mothers. We can’t know for sure what their bosses believed. But if women let workplace decision makers continue to think that mothers are distracted with their home life and are no longer capable of hard work, many successful careers will get crushed by the maternal wall.

For More Information:

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