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Ending Discrimination Against Working Mothers, One Bill At A Time

Gender neutral policies help reduce assumptions that women are less committed to the workplace than men are. (elfidomx/flickr)
Gender neutral policies help reduce assumptions that women are less committed to the workplace than men are. (elfidomx/flickr)

A friend who manages an international investment fund felt under-appreciated and under-promoted by her employer. She secured an interview with a competing institution for a senior level position and arrived at the company anticipating an opportunity to advance to the next level of her career.

“You know you will have to come to work early and work hard?” said the conservatively dressed supervisor who interviewed her.

"Most people who run successful global funds work hard,” she replied, with a tinge of sarcasm. He knew her long, superior track record, yet spoke to her as if she were a child. She left the office livid.

Economists have analyzed how women-specific benefits have worked against them, tying them more to family than to employment in the eyes of management.

This woman is a friend who has allowed me to relay her story anonymously. As she described the interaction, it seemed the supervisor may have felt that a female had to be reminded that she was expected to work the same hours as any male.

The majority of men and women, 70 percent in the U.S., are parents, and we need gender neutral policies to reduce assumptions that women are less committed to the workplace than men are. The Parental Leave Law that goes into effect in April in Massachusetts, is a step in the right direction. The new law, which gives any parent — male or female — the right to take leave due to birth, adoption or to take custody of a foster child, replaces the old Maternity Leave Act. Legislators amended it to avoid potential gender discrimination complaints from men.

But it could also help reduce discrimination against women. Women’s pay is now about 77 percent of men's. It began to stagnate around 2001, when women were requesting flextime to care for family, paid maternity leave and more work-life balance. At the same time, they wanted to earn the same and be promoted as much as men. To some employers, it seemed like women wanted the same rewards that men received, while expecting to work less and have more flexible schedules when they needed to care for family. It came across as a mixed message, and there was no way for employers to know which woman you would be or when.

Economists have analyzed how women-specific benefits have worked against them, tying them more to family than to employment in the eyes of management. “Such policies may lead employers to engage in statistical discrimination against women for jobs leading to higher-level positions, if employers cannot tell which women are likely to avail themselves of these options and which are not,” wrote Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, economics professors at Cornell University, in a 2013 paper.

Statistical discrimination is based on stereotypes developed from the average behavior of a particular group, not some irrational animus. In 2011, mothers spent an average of 21 hours per week in the workplace compared to fathers' 37 hours, according to the Pew Research Center, which might lead some employers to conclude that mothers have a low attachment to the workplace. But averages never reveal the outliers — mavericks who are establishing new family and work patterns. If employers rely on statistical discrimination in pay, hiring or promotions, which is illegal when applied to protected groups such as women and minorities, they will never be able to see the real performers who could lead their organizations. My friend has always been the primary earner for her family, while her husband was the primary care giver. She has an advanced degree, speaks four languages and has 30 years of investment experience.

If employers would ... move beyond outdated gender definitions, women might be able to secure the promotions and pay they have earned.

Equalizing labor participation between men and women will ultimately do more to close the wage and promotion gap than the vaunted Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), which places the burden of rectitude on the person who believes she is being underpaid. The PFA, which is now languishing in Congress, promises slow, narrow relief, with one person building a case and initiating litigation one workplace at a time.

Twenty years ago, it may have seemed that women were clamoring for special treatment. Now, it’s clear that expanded pre-K, using technology to replace face time in the office, and allowing more flexible hours has paved the way for all workers to be more productive. If employers would realize this, and move beyond outdated gender definitions, women might be able to secure the promotions and pay they have earned.

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