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We’re your colleagues—not your mothers

Gender stereotypes in the workplace pressure some women to take on maternal roles. The office “mothering effect” is an unfair burden that we must address, says this HR tech leader.

We’re your colleagues—not your mothers
[Photo: AlexLinch/iStock]

Visit the website of any business publication these days, and you’ll be inundated with headlines about reimagining the office, supporting hybrid work, and ushering in the “new normal.” Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll notice that many of the solutions presented, while well thought out, focus more on the logistics rather than addressing the root of workplace issues. 

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Women still occupy far fewer seats at the leadership table than men—remote, in-person, or hybrid table aside. While we’ve made progress in closing that gap over the years, women are now dropping out of the workforce in droves, threatening any small gains. One major contributor? The “workplace mothering effect”—the phenomenon in which women are expected to take on additional stereotypically feminine or maternal roles in the workplace.  

Gender stereotypes at work and home

In the wake of the New Deal in the mid-1900s, the concept of the family wage (an individual wage sufficient to support an entire family) began to take off. Henry Ford notoriously doled out these family wages under strict scrutiny. Investigators were sent to the homes of Ford Motor Company workers to ensure their wives were doing their part—domestic labor including caregiving, cleaning, and cooking—to earn the family wage. 

While labor practices from the 1930s might not seem relevant in our shiny new age of remote work, the ramifications of clearly demarcating women to the domestic sphere and men to the commercial sphere are still felt today. Because when women began joining the workforce in greater numbers, their domestic work didn’t simply disappear. Now, many women find themselves working a “double shift” (a full workday followed by care work and housework).  

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The same cultural assumptions and gender stereotypes that have resulted in women taking on the greater brunt of domestic work in the home have also always been in the office. While the days of “Mad Men”-esque secretaries who served as literal work wives fetching lunch, getting suits laundered, and maintaining their boss’ schedule are mostly behind us, the gender bias is not.  

Despite the progress we’ve made, women are still expected to fulfill stereotypically feminine and maternal roles in the workplace—what we’re referring to as the “workplace mothering effect.” Because women are viewed as naturally more caring, empathetic, and nurturing, they’re often asked to take on additional supportive tasks at work such as remembering coworkers’ birthdays, taking notes during meetings, and planning culture-building events. 

Taken together, the amount of imbalanced caregiving work women are expected to shoulder both in the home and at the office has left many feeling exhausted and seriously considering dropping out of the workforce (if they haven’t already). 

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Empowering women in leadership

Not only is providing women with the support they need to remain in the workforce critical to closing the gender divide in executive positions, it’s also good for business. Organizations with more women in leadership roles enjoy greater profitability, higher revenue, and enhanced innovation, mentorship, and collaboration

But simply hiring more women or promoting them alone won’t solve the core issue. In a poll of 1,000 women-identifying full-time employees across the U.S. that Visier conducted in March 2021, we found more than one-third (36%) have considered dropping out of the workforce entirely and nearly half (44%) have considered reducing their work hours and/or responsibilities permanently since March 2020. These numbers are even higher for women with child(ren), other dependent(s), or both: 42% of women in these categories said they’ve considered dropping out of the workforce, and 52% have considered permanently reducing their workloads. 

When we asked women what factors would make them consider dropping out of the workforce, their top answer was “if a promotion required significantly more work or hours.” In second place, however, was “being passed up for a promotion or raise they felt they deserved.” These results indicate women want to rise up as leaders, but organizations aren’t providing the support they need to make these roles feasible. In fact, 42% of women in manager roles said they’ve considered exiting the workforce since the outset of the pandemic, compared to just 20% of non-managers. 

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To elevate and support women leaders, organizations must undergo a cultural shift. While approaches will vary by organization and industry, there are a few strategies that could benefit any company:

  • Recognize invisible labor as not only labor, but critical labor. Typically, the caregiving-type tasks women are expected to perform at work go unnoticed. Rarely are duties like planning company events, leading employee resource groups, or managing team communication factored into performance reviews, salaries, or promotion considerations. But these tasks are all critical to a company’s culture and operations, and women deserve to be recognized and rewarded accordingly.
  • Encourage men to share support responsibilities in the office. The need for people to perform supportive tasks in the workplace isn’t going away, but that doesn’t mean women should do it all. Encourage men to step up and share some of these responsibilities. Chances are, they’ll quickly learn just how much work goes into supporting other employees, elevating the status of such efforts.
  • Use data to identify and empower women leaders. People analytics can help organizations gauge employee sentiment, understand performance history, and identify women to elevate. But many companies will need to rethink success metrics to truly empower women. If supporting colleagues isn’t considered real work for the business, women will continue to be passed up for promotion. 
  • Use people analytics to shine a light on bias. Use people analytics to identify where there is bias in any organizational process—attracting candidates; developing, promoting,paying, and retaining workers. Trends need to be constantly monitored that attention is placed on equity holistically across these employee life cycle processes.
  • Provide better support benefits for all. While employers can’t control uneven caregiving duty breakdowns in the home, they can provide paternity leave and other parental benefits to men, which enables them to better support their partners at home and fosters a culture of shared responsibility. Simply put, by giving men time off to care for their children, you send the message that caregiving is also valuable men’s work. 

Reimagining the office means more than simply rethinking physical and virtual spaces. We need to consider the people using these spaces, and how biases and stereotypes affect the way they’re able to move up the metaphorical career ladder. We’ve been given the opportunity to completely change the way we work for the better. Let’s not waste it.  


Lexy Martin is principal of research and customer value at Visier, a cloud-based HR analytics solution.

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