Leadership Wellbeing Career Progression Employee Development Diversity & Inclusion

What is maternal bias and what to do about it

Many working mothers encounter discrimination arising from maternal bias. Research shows that it is the strongest type of gender bias.

It is also one where the language has become complicated by the fact that society now openly recognises that not all people who give birth are biological women, and neither are all mothers.

The rise of adoption and surrogacy raise additional questions around parental leave and parental rights. These factors can lead to discrimination and a lack of inclusion that operates on many level.

Employers are working the growing implications of how parenting affects careers for all genders.

We are focusing this DRIVE article on maternal bias as it is designed to focus on gender diversity for women at Enterprise, though we recognise it is a complex topic.

Why it matters?
Businesses like Enterprise that want to retain and promote talented women must be aware of how maternal bias can lead to people being side-lined at an important moment in their career.

This can arise from good intentions and wanting to allow an employee to spend more time with their family.

However, as is often the way with assumptions based on good intentions, this works against the person’s and the business’ goals and denies them opportunities that can lead to advancement.

Maternal bias occurs when someone who is pregnant or has had a baby is viewed as less competent and less committed to their jobs compared to their colleagues. This can mean that these people – and especially mothers – being given fewer opportunities and being held to higher standards than fathers. Often, people who are pregnant or have had a child face major challenges in their career advancement, especially if they are also female.

Maternal bias can manifest in different ways. It can be due to activity or behaviours by hiring committees, colleagues, and people conducting performance evaluations.

For example, when mothers are working away from the office, it’s often assumed that they are at home with their kids. They are then penalised for those assumptions that they may be distracted or not work as hard as their counterparts who are not pregnant or have not had a baby.

We can fall into the trap of thinking mothers are less interested in their work and ambitions. This may mean we assume they don’t want that challenging assignment or to go on a big work trip. If someone suggests that a person on your team be given a big, high-profile project, colleagues will often say, “I don’t think this is a good time for them since they just had a baby.”

Because colleagues think they’re less committed we are also more likely to penalise them for small mistakes or oversights.

Other people can face pushback for having kids, too. Fathers who take time off for family reasons can receive lower performance ratings and experience steeper reductions in future earnings than mothers who do.

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