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Knocking Down The Maternal Wall

As a speaker at a recent ‘Women in Leadership’ course, one of the ladies in the audience spoke of her male head of HR, who said that he avoids promoting younger women to leadership roles, because ‘they will only leave to have babies’.

Apart from the shock at hearing a senior HR professional declare such blatant gender discrimination, I realised that despite existing legislation in many countries to prevent such behaviour, we still have a long way to go.

Described as the ‘maternal wall’, this is one of the 5 most common unconscious biases in the workplace identified by Law Professor Joan C. Williams from her 10-year research.

It centres around the assumption mothers cannot possibly be as committed or competent as their non-mother colleagues, since surely they will put their children first? This also impacts women who have yet to become mothers - especially when they become engaged or married - as demonstrated by the shocking comment above.

Alarmingly, studies show that women who mention on job applications their outside interests including being a member of the PTA, were 79% less likely to be hired.

Evidence demonstrates that fathers are also discriminated against. If they leave work early or take time off for their family, they received poor performance ratings in annual reviews, which in turn affected promotion potential.

Fortunately, the concept of ‘parental leave’ is being adopted more widely, as organisations recognise the importance of both parents being given time to share and bond with their children.

But we need to be talking more openly about some of the challenges of being parents and the impact on work/life balance, to keep the conversation going for others to feel able to do the same.

That way, parents will feel able to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, helping to break down the maternal - or parental - wall bias.

These ‘dinosaurs’ with their antiquated views will be replaced by enlightened HR professionals eventually, to drive the full engagement and potential of women of all ages.

But in the meantime, we must all play our part.

What experiences have you had of hitting the maternal wall?


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