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America Has a Motherhood Problem — Here's How to Solve It

The solution to removing the stigma of motherhood at work may lie in paternity leave.
Image: African American businesswoman holding baby
One study showed that despite only 11 percent of women having planned on pausing their careers for parenthood, 72 percent actually had.JGI / Getty Images/Blend Images

According to Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the ideal American worker “is perpetually available, has no outside responsibilities or interests, rarely gets sick and prioritizes work above all else.” Which seems a bit extreme, but probably also sounds familiar.

For anyone looking for a life outside of work, the looming ideal worker expectation makes it difficult to cultivate. And for women, specifically, the ideal employee can be mired with complications.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016 69.2 percent of women ages 30 to 34 had given birth, and more than 80 percent of women ages 35 to 39 had, too. For those who’d planned on motherhood, American women expected both to give absolutely everything to their jobs and still somehow go through giving birth, recovering and raising their children are likely find their work and home narratives totally at odds. And with only 14 percent of civilian workers in the U.S. getting paid family leave and prevailing biases against mothers (doubting their dedication both to work and to their children), the situation can be impossible. Even for the 71 percent with kids under age 18 who manage to work to some capacity.

And so, despite ambitions for full, successful and long lives in the workforce, many women simply leave.

Only 14 percent of civilian workers in the U.S. are getting paid family leave.

At least, that’s what journalist and consultant Lisen Sromberg found in writing her new book “Work PAUSE Thrive.

Stromberg surveyed 1,476 college educated women (and interviewed 186 of them) about how they integrated work and life. The most telling stats about them? That despite only 11 percent of those women having planned on pausing their careers for parenthood, as many as 72 percent actually had. Something had forced these women out of the workforce. Stromberg found there were a myriad of reasons why they left, from inflexible bosses to blatant biases against working mothers to the high cost of childcare. What she also found, however, is that many of these women (89 percent) forced to take their pauses ultimately found their ways back in, many to now successful full-time careers.

BETTER hopped on the phone for an interview with Stomberg about what’s really at the heart of men and women’s troubles integrating work and parenthood, and how we can fix it.

What are some of the prevailing messages we hear about mothers and motherhood in America?

Shelley Correll, who’s a professor at Stanford, does research around motherhood bias. What we learned is that women, once they become mothers, are viewed as less promotable, less likely to be leadership material, less committed. Interestingly, men, when they become fathers, are viewed as more promotable, more capable, more committed and so on. So we’ve got this unconscious bias that permeates our narrative around women in the workplace.

Once they become mothers, [women] are viewed as less promotable, less likely to be leadership material, less committed.

We as a country [also] believe that the best mothers are those who are available full-time for their children. Not the best fathers …

How do these biases affect the outcome of women in leadership positions?

Let’s look at who’s at the top of most of these companies. Whether they’re women or men — and, of course, we all know the statistics about how there aren’t enough women at the top — even if there are women at the top, if you look at the life of the women at the top, you have two things that happen. One, either they don’t have children, or, those that do, typically have someone at home caring for their kids. And that’s very often the husband … so it’s the same dynamic.

What are some of the main reasons you saw women leave the workforce?

​The number one reason women left was the lack of control of their time. They were willing to work hard but needed time mastery so that they could do the things they wanted to do in work and life. I call it time mastery. For the majority of the 28 percent of women who never paused, the reason they didn't pause was they had supportive work environments that rewarded productivity, not face-time.

For the majority of the 28 percent of women who never paused, the reason they didn't pause was they had supportive work environments that rewarded productivity, not face-time.

You define 'a pause' as a temporary reframing of priorities, putting the personal before the professional. This could mean working part-time, ceasing to work for a short period or really pulling out of the workforce for a number of years. Of the women you interviewed who’d paused and relaunched their careers, was there a story that struck you in particular?

I love the story of Kuae Mattox. Kuae Mattox was a journalist. She was a producer, actually, working for major news outlets, all the top names. And then she paused her career for, I think, it was over ten years. And she wanted to get back in and was really having a hard time. So she took a part-time job and she took another job that was full-time but paid less. Now she’s a producer at CNN.

You give a list of advice on what to do if we’re ultimately made to pause, like staying in the game and working part-time. Do you think a pause can ultimately be good for our careers?

I am not advocating for pauses. In fact, I wish the workplace would change so this was not a necessity for so many of us with care-giving responsibilities. However, until those changes are actually infused into our workplace culture and our policy systems, what are the near term solutions that we can and should do as individuals?

So what should we be doing to ensure we and future generations of women aren’t made to leave the workforce when we want to parent?

Look at your company and really assess. Do I have a manager or do I have a situation where I can partner with my company [and] make this work for me and them? Is this an environment where that conversation can even be had? If it’s not, then I would encourage the person to leave.

Right, you also said when we interview with a company we should be asking what their parental leave looks like (even before we take the job). Are there companies already implementing serious maternity leave changes?

I live in Silicon Valley and in Silicon Valley the average age of the employee is 30, 31, 32 if you look at Google, Facebook, etc. And these companies are smart. They want to figure out how to retain the best parent. So what they’ve done is they’ve offered meaningful maternity leave and paternity leave to the men and women who work at their companies. They’re starting to realize that they have to do it. They’re not offering childcare and I think they’re gonna face a real comeuppance — or if they do there just isn’t enough slots in their childcare … but in terms of maternity and paternity leave, they’re very forward thinking.

I remember in your book you mention Google’s four-month maternity leave and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg taking two months of paternity leave himself. Speaking of which, where does paternity leave fall into all of this?

I actually believe that paternity leave is the secret weapon — if an employer is looking at a hire and removing the idea that they’ll be out when they have children for a period of time. If it’s equally a man or a woman who’s likely to be out because the company offers parental leave, then the notion that a person is not committing to their career or that they’re going to be a problem because they’re going to leave is taken off the table. So if we want to immediately have an impact on removing bias in hiring, one of the easiest ways we can do that is to offer both men and women an equal parental leave.

One of the easiest ways we can [remove bias in hiring] is to offer both men and women an equal parental leave.

You said you’ve spoken to recruiters in Silicon Valley and they’re telling you young men won’t consider working at a company that doesn’t offer paternity leave.

Canada and Sweden have done longitudinal research around what the implications are of dads taking paternity leave, paid paternity leave, and what we’re finding is that the children themselves ultimately are physically healthier, are more engaged with school; the women — their partners — make more money and are more engaged in their careers and the dads are more engaged with their family. So that alone is the recipe for success.

With the U.S. one of only two countries in the world without any national maternity leave policy, and millennial men and women poised to face the caregiving problem in droves, it’s probably time for us to find our own recipe for success.

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