July 12th, 2024

Not just a glass ceiling: Working moms on the ‘maternal wall’ that can stall careers

By Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press on March 8, 2024.

When Queen's University associate professor Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin, shown in a handout photo, went into labour with her second child early, she was in the middle of grading but insisted on finishing her marking despite being on the cusp of one of her family's most important moments because of the pressure she and other women feel when juggling motherhood with their careers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Richard Darwah **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO – When Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin went into labour with her second child early, she was in the middle of grading her students’ work.

“My closest friend was telling me to go to the hospital. My partner was like, “˜Let’s go to the hospital,’ but I’m like, “˜No, I have to finish this because once I have this baby, I don’t know how I’m going to do it,'” the Queen’s University associate professor recalled.

“This is how wild it can be sometimes because you don’t want to feel like oh, I’m not doing my work.”

Adeniyi-Ogunyankin’s insistence on finishing her marking despite being on the cusp of one of her family’s most important moments was a product of the pressure she and other women feel when juggling motherhood and their careers.

The challenges they encounter form what some call a “maternal wall:” the ways that negative perceptions of mothers in the workforce can block opportunities for career advancement.

For many, the maternal wall crops up when employers and peers start to doubt their ability to do their jobs because they’re also raising kids.

A 2023 report from international non-profit Mothers in Science found one-third of women working in the sciences while raising children had their competence questioned by employers and colleagues after becoming a parent.

But the phenomenon is not contained to a particular field.

“It’s shocking how prevalent it is,” said Allison Venditti, founder of advocacy group Moms at Work.

You might assume there would be less of it in areas like health care, which have historically employed a higher number of women, but there are examples of it everywhere, she said.

It even affects women who aren’t pregnant and don’t have kids, Venditti said, because many see them as a “breeding horse” as soon they hit the typical child-bearing years.

“People are looking at you going, ‘I wonder when she’s going to have a kid,'” Venditti said.

“I’ve had conversations with the human resources person when people are looking at layoffs and whatever and they’re like, ‘Well, how many more good years does she have left?'”

If women have kids, Venditti said they are frequently become the “default” for childcare and housework, but their employers often view these responsibilities as a distraction from work. If the demands of child-rearing become too steep, mothers are commonly expected to put their careers aside.

“When couples are having these discussions about whose job to protect … they’re focusing on the person who’s making more money and that is predominantly men,” Venditti said.

Statistics Canada found women between the ages of 25 and 54 earned 89 cents for every dollar made by men in 2021.

Those who take time off for caregiving often find the wage gap is even larger because their absence can affect seniority and the opportunities open to them.

Some companies are trying to help with the challenges of motherhood.

Apparel brand Patagonia, for example, provides workers with on-site child care at its headquarters and one of its distribution centres.

Consulting firm PwC offers maternity top-ups for birth mothers, financial support for parents who adopt children, fertility coverage and parental leave coaching aimed at helping workers focus on their family while away and then return to work with their long-term career goals in mind.

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research reimburses individuals with a dependent under the age of 12 for costs associated with childcare when it holds meetings.

However, Adeniyi-Ogunyankin still sees hurdles in areas like research travel.

“If you’re going to go away and do research, you can’t just go there for a week or two weeks in order to get something substantial,” said Adeniyi-Ogunyankin, a CIFAR fellow who researches the politics of gender and neoliberal urbanism in two Nigerian cities.

“To understand the context, you need to be there for months at a time … so that becomes challenging when you have kids.”

She’s contemplating what to do with her kids if she is able to travel to Nigeria. Plane tickets would cost $2,000 per child and she’d have to cover daycare fees to keep one of her kids from losing their spot.

But she’s made her career and child care work several times before.

When she was interviewing for a job while one of her children was a few months old, she heard a common refrain: don’t let people know you have a child.

“I decided not to do that,” she said. “I was like, ‘I have a three-month-old, so you need to schedule some breaks in for me.'”

She has brought her baby to presentations and dinners during the recruitment process. She figures it was more acceptable because she’s in the gender studies field, but still argues “we don’t need to make that part of ourselves invisible.”

Jessica Metcalf, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar who teaches at Colorado State University, agrees. She strives to be a role model for others aspiring to pursue academia and have kids.

Doing both means sometimes making “hard decisions” because “the reality is I can’t do everything,” she said.

“I have to do in 40 hours a week, what some people have 50 or 60 hours a week to do,” she said,noting she can’t catch up on work during the weekend because she has to care for her kids then.

“I always joke, if I was as efficient as I am now when I was in grad school, I would have finished in, like, half the time.”

To manage the demands of work and motherhood, Metcalf hired a sleep consultant to smooth out her kids’ bedtime so she isn’t awoken several times in the night, and feverishly uses her calendar.

She sees signs that conditions are improving for working mothers. Her employer, for example, is exploring a pilot project which could offer financial support or temporary caregiving during research periods.

But supporting working moms can’t come solely from small policy changes, Venditti said. It has to come from companies’ operating ethos or from a new generation dramatically improving the work situation for the next one.

“When women run companies, when people start companies because of the way they were treated, magic happens,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2024.

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