Monday, February 18, 2019

Maternal Leave and Stalled Careers: Considerate Discrimination


In Norway and Sweden, the paid parental leave after childbirth has one component that is exclusive to the mother and one shared between parents. Advocates of gender equality in the workplace have been critical of the parents’ ability to give all the leave to the mother and encouraged by the fact that most parents decide to let the father take some time off to care for the child. But think about this for a moment: If paid maternal leave is a major accomplishment of the movement for equal rights and opportunities for women in the workplace, does it make sense to let fathers take some of it?

Research by Irene Padavic, Robin Ely, and Erin Reid in Administrative Science Quarterly suggests that sharing family leave benefits across genders is exactly the way to achieve greater equality in the workplace. Yes, much research has shown that women have disadvantages and that these grow greater after childbirth. The idea of a work-family conflict that needs to be addressed by providing various benefits to women and especially mothers is grounded in this observation. But firms unwittingly use these benefits in ways that stall women’s careers and prevent changes that could create less-demanding work conditions for both men and women as well as greater equality in opportunities.

First, the various benefits to make the workplace more flexible and adapted to provide work-family balance are typically oriented toward making it easier for working women to fulfill the wife and mother roles, which in a typical family handle much more of the housework than the husband and father roles. In practice, that means that the workplace allows women to work fewer hours and move to internal-facing roles, which in turn makes them less promotable and even stigmatizes them as recipients of benefits. In Padavic, Ely, and Reid’s research from a global consulting firm, women took 11 years to be promoted to partner, while men took 9 years. And this disparity applies only to those women who got as far as promotion: at the partner level, only 10 percent were women.

Second, it was widely recognized that women in this firm had less successful careers than men, but management in the firm emphasized that this stemmed from the nature of the work, which simply did not fit women’s needs to achieve a good work-family balance. Indeed, the firm was seen as accommodating these needs quite well because it offered women alternative job paths involving less demanding work schedules and less travel. The implication was that if women did the same work as men (putting in the same hours and accepting the same heavy travel requirements), they could do equally well.

Third, managers did not recognize that the firm’s work schedules, unrealistic deadlines, and demand for employees to be available 24/7 were as burdensome for men and equally disruptive to their family lives as they were for women. The belief that the bond between mother and child is special and much more important to maintain than the bond between father and child was so firm that evidence showing how the work hours and travel schedules disadvantaged male workers too was dismissed. Everyone “knew” that this was “women’s problem,” so the firm was doing enough by catering to women’s needs for family time.

Discrimination is actions based on beliefs. There is a distinction between the belief that women are not fit for work and the belief that women have greater needs for a work-family balance than men, but it is a small distinction. In both cases the result is discrimination and stalled careers, and it doesn’t help anyone that the second kind of belief and discrimination seems more considerate than the first.


Padavic, I., R. J. Ely, and E. M. Reid
2019. "Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work–family Narrative as a Social Defense against the 24/7 Work Culture." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

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