This story is part of Fast Company‘s Gender Pay Gap package “Short Changed.” In honor of Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day that women have to work for free to match men’s earnings, we are exploring elements of pay inequality though the personal stories of women across industries and career stages who experience it every day. Click here to read the whole series.
Rita Kakati Shah was thinking about returning to work after three and a half years of raising her two children. Armed with 15 years of experience in the financial sector and the pharmaceutical industry (including a 10-year stint at Goldman Sachs), she decided to start the process by attending a networking event. When it came to putting down her place of employment in her name tag, she wrote SAHM, which stood for “stay-at-home mom.”
She started talking to another attendee, and when that attendee discovered what SAHM stood for, she turned around and walked away. “I stood there thinking, Did that just happen?” Shah decided to tap the attendee on the shoulder and asked her, “Can I just ask why you reacted that way?” The attendee admitted that because Shah had been a stay-at-home mom rather than engaging in paid employment, she thought that Shah “couldn’t have had anything to contribute to the conversation.”
Shah was experiencing the effects of a “mommy tax”–the idea that working mothers are penalized for having children, while fathers are often rewarded. According to a 2017 report from The National Women’s Law Center, working mothers in the U.S. earn 71¢ to the dollar in comparison to working fathers. As Lydia Dishman previously reported for Fast Company, the motherhood bias is based on the perception that women who have children will be less ambitious and focused at work, while men will be more responsible and committed to their jobs because they will be motivated to take care of their family.
For Shah, that experience was just one of the many motherhood biases that she faced in her journey to returning to full-time employment. She faced so much hostility that she decided to start Uma–a company that helps mothers transition back to the workforce. She recently shared her experience with Fast Company. Her account has been edited for space and clarity.
“I was really reduced to questioning myself”
I started my career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs on the equity trading floor. I was–at the time–one of the very few women in the trading area, as well as one of the very few people of color. I relocated to New York City (from London) when I got married, and by this time I’d transitioned into the pharmaceutical industry. When I was pregnant with my son, I had the U.K. in the back of my mind, as there, I would have had a paid year off and mentoring when I came back to work.
But my boss told me that I could take six weeks off, unpaid, and I had to file a disability claim to get that time off. That was a slap in the face. It was just insulting. I was really reduced to questioning myself. Nobody should have to feel that way. To be fair, it wasn’t my ex boss’s fault. It’s just the societal culture that [the U.S. is] in. Everything is a machine in New York, and that’s the harsh reality. I ended up quitting that job and took three and a half years to raise my two children.
“Everyone was so focused on the gap on my resume”
When I went to the networking event and confronted the woman who walked away from me, I realized that she was completely unaware of her reaction. She didn’t think I’d have anything to contribute because I was a stay-at-home mom, even though I knew that couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, as soon as I mentioned where I used to work, she wanted to be my best friend.
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That wasn’t the only bias I faced. When I started reaching out to my professional contacts in healthcare and finance and having meetings with them about going back to work, I was really surprised at the kinds of questions I was getting. Nobody–not once–asked me about my background and my credentials. Everyone was so focused on the gap on my resume. The fact that I chose to take a career gap to raise my family translated to me being a quitter in a lot of people’s eyes.
I’d get comments like, “Well, Rita, you out of everyone know that this industry is a cutthroat industry, it’s for people that are ambitious, there’s no room for quitters.” They’re basically saying that I couldn’t possibly be ambitious because I took time off to raise my family and do something that’s not focused on my career.
I realized just how much of an uphill battle mothers face when they attempt to come back to work. I faced it, I felt it, and that’s really what planted the seeds to do something about this. This anger that I felt ultimately led to the birth of Uma.
“Why is it that the company makes it hard for you to get a promotion if you want to go back?”
When I started Uma, I met so many incredible moms who were in the same boat as me. They came from professional backgrounds, and they all found it hard to return to work. One woman, an experienced journalist, met with a recruiter when she was coming back to the workforce. The recruiter told her, “Look, no one is going to hire you because you’re a mom.”
Another woman had to sacrifice her health to avoid the mommy tax. She was up for partnership at a law firm, and when she had her second baby, she had to have a caesarean section but was back at work within a week without medical approval. She knew that if she took any time off, they were going to overlook her and she’d never make partner. She did get the partnership, but it really impacted her health.
It’s a hard decision, but why should you have to choose one or the other? Why is it that the company makes it hard for you to get a promotion if you want to go back?
“The mommy tax is actually a family tax”
We need to change our perception about the value that mothers provide in the workforce. When you’re a mom, you’re not “just a mom.” I used to get asked what I did all day. I was the CEO, CFO, and technical officer of my household. I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I have to be organized, I have to be personable. But people don’t take all of that into account, and you are reduced to nothing.
When my husband went back to work after we had our first child, everything was just back to normal. A friend of mine–another female partner in a law firm–had a male associate who works for her, and one week didn’t come in. Everyone was wondering what happened, and when he came back, he said that his cat was sick and he had to take her to the vet. Nothing was done about it, everyone’s reaction was like, “Oh, what a caring guy.” Having said that, had it been my friend, even though she was a partner, if she has to leave early because one of her kids is sick at school, everyone would be like, “Oh there she goes again.” And that happens all the time where there is a level of unconscious bias. Nobody thinks about it, but it exists.
We also need to change the perception that the “mommy tax” is solely a mother’s issue. The mommy tax is actually a family tax. Having a child is a decision that you make with your partner–so any tax you pay also impacts your partner and the rest of your family.