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Mike O’Brien of Seattle City Council on Gender, Part 1 of 2: Words are Powerful

SeattleMartha BurwellComment

Words are powerful.  And sometimes they can have serious, unintended effects.

In a blog post in June, I discussed recent comments made by Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien when he was addressing the issue of unaffordable childcare.  He had said on a recent panel:

“It was within our generation that we switched the way we lived as human beings for eons, where one parent worked […] to support a family, to now it’s just expected that you have two workers and you have to have childcare.  You know, that is a choice we make as a society, and if we don’t think that’s working for us, we can choose something else.” *

This well-meaning phrase, with a little bit of context, takes on a different feel, because looking back over the past century, the father is the parent that traditionally has worked in a heterosexual relationship.  And said with a tone of nostalgia, this statement hints that we should “go back” to a time when only men were breadwinners.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled to hear this from a Seattle leader. 

Why was I put off?  They’re just words, after all.  He wasn’t actually making any policy. 

 Photo:   11 Words   by  Susana Fernandez  is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

Photo: 11 Words by Susana Fernandez is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But words like those pour out of the mouths of leaders and spread through our culture, settling on the minds of business leaders, employees, women and men who make real decisions about who to hire, and at what salary.

Words like those creep into the gender wage gap and wedge it open a little more, rather than adding pressure to close it.

Words like those hint that the “right thing” is for women to stay home, perpetuating a very real, very serious discrimination against women in the workforce. 

But words like those pour out of the mouths of leaders and spread through our culture, settling on the minds of business leaders, employees, women and men who make real decisions about who to hire, and at what salary.

Women hear similar phrases at work, such as " “You’re back already? My wife could never do that—leave our kids,” or "don't you miss your kids?".  This is the seemingly pleasant frosting on a not-so-pleasant reality of discrimination. 

Believing that women should spend their time with family, rather than work, is known as the “maternal wall.” It is often well-meaning, but has staggering, unintended consequences. 

The maternal wall, in a nutshell, means that if you look at two women’s resumes that are identical except one implies she is a mother, a mother is: “79% less likely to be hired, 50% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.” (From What Works for Women at Work by Joan C. Williams)

Whoah. 

 Image:   Work Like Effectiveness   by  Mike Kline  is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

Image: Work Like Effectiveness by Mike Kline is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is not an exaggeration.  It has been extensively studied—the source I used is from one of the best-known experts on gender in the workplace, Joan C. Williams of UC Hastings Law School.  

You won’t be surprised, then, that having a family is one of the “worst career moves a woman can make,” in our country while men’s careers actually benefit from it.  This is partly due to the fact that the USA is the only ‘developed’ country that does not mandate parental leave or vacation time

And though it is illegal to ask a woman if she is married or thinking of having children during an interview, the reality is that even a wedding ring can trigger the same response.  Or just being a woman of a certain age. 

 

 

This is why I cringed at O'Brien's words.  Because I heard the familiar echo of the "maternal wall."

But I had a hope that that wasn’t what he meant. 

So what did O’Brien mean, then?  How can we solve the problem of unaffordable, but necessary expenses, such as childcare? 

Less than an hour after I posted the blog, I got a message on Twitter from O’Brien himself: “I’d love to chat about your recent post.”

Well. I was about to find out. 

See Part 2:  Dialogue and a call to action


Learn more: for a more detailed discussion about the "Maternal Wall," see Harvard Business Review's "Will Working Mothers Take Your Company to Court?"

Take Action: For tips for employees for how to handle the "Maternal Wall," see Joan C. Williams video. For both employees and employers, see the above Harvard Business Review article