Working mothers make up a significant portion of the American workforce. According to the U.S. Census, nearly one-third of employed women have children under the age of 18 at home. That’s more than 23.5 million working women nationwide.
For these women — who already face the challenge of parenting, providing for their families, and maintaining a career — the COVID-19 pandemic has only made being a working mother in the U.S. more challenging, bringing about increasing school and caretaking responsibilities on top of the prejudice and discrimination often faced by some in the workplace. Equally shameful: the country as a whole has made no progress in narrowing the gender pay gap in recent years according to EqualPayToday.org, with mothers making an average of just 70 cents to every dollar earned by their colleagues who are fathers. It’s no wonder then that recent data shows a record number of women have decided to leave the workforce, both because they are more likely to be in positions that are slashed, and because the majority of the family responsibilities at home have also been falling on their shoulders.
We spoke with Ronli Merlis, senior global manager of convention management at Sanofi (No. 28 on The DiverstyInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020) about the challenges mothers face in the workplace. A mother of two teen boys herself, Merlis is part of Sanofi’s Parents Connect employee resource group (ERG), which offers support and networking opportunities for parents within the company.
“I think that there’s bias in this country once a woman becomes pregnant,” Merlis said. “People often think that women become less productive at work when they become pregnant. And once women have children, I believe there’s also bias against mothers because we can be seen as being overly preoccupied with our kids.”
While the push for pay equality and greater acceptance of mothers in the workplace takes increased executive accountability, leadership and commitment on the corporate level, Merlis said we can also all do our part to maintain a safer, more welcoming, more inclusive environment for all those mothers we work with. One way is by watching what we say in the workplace, eliminating potential microaggressions and filling our environments with more positive, uplifting language and words and avoiding phrases that hurt, like these commonly used terms, phrases and comments — things people should never say to or about mothers in any workplace.
“How do you have time to pump when you’re working?” Or, alternatively: “Why aren’t you breastfeeding? It has so many health benefits!”
Merlis says that she has experienced both shame for breastfeeding and shame for not breastfeeding her children.
“I felt shamed when I had to take time out and pump milk during the workday,” she said. “And then I felt shamed after I stopped breastfeeding, and people began questioning why I stopped and how good it is for my child.”
The choice to breastfeed or not to breastfeed is a parent’s personal decision. Mothers will choose what works best for them and their schedules and that decision shouldn’t be discussed in the workplace no matter what people might think of it.
“You’re leaving work early again?”
Merlis said that when her children were of daycare age, she would receive dirty looks from coworkers for leaving work early to pick them up while others stayed in the office late.
“Little did they know that I would get back online at night after my boys went to bed to continue to work,” she said.
Though people may assume mothers do the bare minimum in the office to prioritize their families, the reality is much more likely that they are working hard to do their best at both.
“I would never want somebody else to watch my kids.”
Merlis said she has experienced microaggressions from moms who don’t work because of her choice to be a working mom. She said the idea that a woman can only choose between motherhood or a career puts women in boxes and limits their opportunities in the workplace. The perception that women can’t be great mothers if they work, or great professionals if they’re mothers denies them the ability to be fulfilled in multiple facets of their lives.
Men, on the other hand, don’t face the same kind of shaming, or do not face it as often as mothers.
“I think there’s a perception that men just take paternity leave and they come back two weeks or four weeks later and their work is done. But for mothers, whether you have a newborn or an older child, that work never goes away and is an ongoing daily challenge,” Merlis said.
A family’s child care decisions should be considered personal, and no one should be shamed for how they choose to balance their work and life.
“She’s pregnant, so we shouldn’t send her on that trip or give her that challenging assignment.”
Denying women opportunities based solely on the knowledge that they are pregnant is another barrier mothers often face when trying to advance their careers.
“It could be demeaning to say she’s not able to because she’s pregnant,” Merlis said. “Like, ‘Perhaps we shouldn’t assign her that project because she’s pregnant, she’s going to be on maternity leave and she won’t be able to finish that project.’ Or: ‘She can’t be traveling to a client site because she’s going to be pregnant and won’t be able to travel at a certain point.’”
Regardless of what stage of motherhood any woman is at, the opportunity should always go to the most qualified employee. If a person is pregnant and doesn’t feel they can take on the project, let them turn it down themselves — they know what they’re capable of doing!
“You’re just emotional because you’re hormonal!”
Women — whether pregnant or not — sometimes face comments that suggest they wouldn’t be able to handle certain positions because they are “too emotional,” Merlis said.
Instead of validating women’s feelings and realizing that emotion is not a barrier to effective work for women or men, some people write off feelings that are expressed in the workplace as either dramatic or irrational. Merlis said this tendency is even worse for pregnant or new mothers, who are often dismissed as hormonal simply for showing their emotions.
In reality, Merlis said someone’s emotional reaction to a situation can give insights into issues or stressors and should be validated, not dismissed.
“She just came back from maternity leave, so she must not be dedicated to her work.”
Rather than easing back into her work life as policies may allow, a woman returning from maternity leave may instead feel that she has to work even harder just to prove she is dedicated to her career.
“I think there’s concern among women that when they go out on maternity leave and then they come back, there’s a pause assumed in their career path,” Merlis said. “And so, we need to work even harder to show our employers that we’re committed to our careers. And to show our colleagues that we’re committed.”
Some coworkers may even resent an expectant mother if they fear they’ll have to take on her work when she leaves. Merlis said at Sanofi, the company offers preceptorships which allow prospective employees to fill a role temporarily to get a feel for the company and position. Often, these preceptors fill the spots of people who are on maternity leave, which helps to eliminate the fear of heavier workloads falling on an expectant mother’s co-workers.
Ultimately, Merlis said, a company’s success in retaining and promoting mothers has a lot to do with how they’re treated before and after maternity leave. Offering flexibility, healthcare and childcare benefits, resources and empathy is one of the keys to creating a mother-friendly work environment. Merlis said Parents Connect Employee Resource Group further plays a critical role in supporting colleagues in their family journeys.
“A mother should not feel shamed or guilty for being pregnant and joining motherhood,” she said. “It is such a miracle and a blessing to be a mother — or a father. I appreciate working for a place like Sanofi where parenthood is embraced and resources are provided for all stages of the life of children and their parents.”
According to Merlis, if you’re a parent who is experiencing microaggressions, comments or attitudes that make you feel uncomfortable about your decisions, know that it’s OK to speak up or consider looking for other employment. “Your current job may not be a good fit,” she said, “but know that there are supportive workplaces out there.”
And for everybody who isn’t a parent, know that you can help to create the environments and these safe spaces for parents to work in by keeping the language you use in check, and making them feel just as welcome in the workplace as any of your other co-workers.