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If We Truly Want to Empower Women, We Have to Start Respecting Mothers' Rights

In the home or in the office, let's stop telling women where their "place" is.

Art Credit: Shannon Lee Miller

Never has there been a better time to be a working woman. The law generally protects us from discrimination and harassment, and opportunities abound. Yet somehow, it still remains very difficult to be a woman with professional aspirations. More specifically, it is remarkably hard for a woman who seeks both career and family to achieve both while maintaining stability and happiness.

This is evidenced in part by the unending litany of magazine articles about “having it all” and establishing work-life balance. But it’s also evidenced by the numbers.

As authors with such varying opinions as Kay Hymowitz and Hanna Rosin point out, women are thriving academically and professionally in the new century. It’s almost trite now to repeat that more women earn undergraduate and graduate degrees than men and that there are more women in the workforce, including in management, than men.

But with this rise of what Hymowitz calls the “alpha woman” has come a corresponding rise in female angst. It’s become almost equally trite to cite the University of Pennsylvania study that found that women are the unhappiest they’ve been in nearly four decades or other studies finding that women are using anxiety and depression medications at rates far higher than men and at the highest levels in recorded history.

Something isn’t working here.

In my view, the problem is that women are increasingly trapped by social pressures and expectations in a workforce that hardly accommodates their needs, especially as they advance toward motherhood. Whereas earlier waves of feminism stood for genuine professional choice, a subsequent wave seems to have lost its way and has made career a woman’s only ticket to social respect. This later wave lobbied hard for a workplace that treated women like men.

Fast-forward to 2014 and we have women frantically pumping breast milk on toilet seats in office bathrooms, leaving their workforce en masse after their fleeting postpartum “disability” leave ends, and being pressured into blunting their maternal instincts and billing more hours.

Anyone want a Xanax?

The emerging picture is that choice is a farce for today’s woman. Nothing exemplifies this more sharply than a recent The Economist online poll that asked women to debate, and readers to vote on, this statement: “a woman’s place is at work.” It’s amazing that we are even still debating a woman’s “place.” All the more amazing is that almost half of respondents—47 percent—agreed that women basically should not have the right to stay home. Reuters did its own survey and asked the opposite question, whether a “woman’s place is in the home.” Seventy-four percent disagreed.

If it was so terrible that, societally, we used to overwhelmingly believe that a woman’s “place” is at home, how is it not similarly stigma-inducing to tell women that their “place” is in the office?

Couple that with articles suggesting that Ivy League degrees are “wasted” on mothers who stay home [see Verily article “O Alma Mater”], and women are left with a choice between “work” or “social failure.” It’s no surprise that women today still struggle with how to fit “mom” into the equation.

Articles and comments such as these may be meant as provocations but they have poisonous trickle-down effects. I will never forget a college friend, now a successful actuary in Boston, telling me during our freshman year at Tufts University that her father told her she would be a “waste of an education” if she were to marry and have children after college, forgoing a career. I have sat across countless tables in coffee shops, interviewing young women who tell me they would absolutely view their friends as failures if they scaled back or left the workplace altogether for a family. When I ask why, they always look at me sadly or blankly and shrug their shoulders.

As the next generation of women, the “place” for us is ours to redefine and choice ours to reclaim. While we do inherit a difficult tension between the workplace and family life, the depressing prospect of freezing our eggs is not where the road need end.

Motherhood is work.

Our first challenge is to account for the fact that motherhood is work. It is work distinct from fatherhood. This is not to undermine fatherhood, which is in need of its own social redemption, but motherhood first and foremost requires a certain amount of physical work that can only be done by women. That work begins at the moment of conception and doesn’t stop after birth.

As ethicist Leon Kass put it so well:

We human beings are at work not only when we are occupationally working. We are also deeply at work in the activities of love and friendship, and especially when we are actively engaged in family life, the domain of private life in which Americans find the most meaning.

The fact that it is virtually impossible for a woman to work outside the home without hiring help is evidence alone that motherhood is it’s own full-time job. Studies consistently find that women prefer to be home part-time, even with most American households showing a more or less even division of housework, only furthering the evidence that women seek to play a different role in the home than men.

Young women who are not yet mothers have a very vested interest in advancing the truth that motherhood is professional work—Investopedia estimates as much as $96,000 worth annually. Odds are that most women will eventually find themselves as mothers and should have the right to live their twenties and thirties feeling as though they have authentic choices.

Establishing social consensus that motherhood is professional work gives women leverage to shape the workplace to better accommodate their desires and needs. When society recognizes motherhood as work that cannot necessarily be stopped and started, the workplace will be forced to accommodate women in a way that it simply is not doing today. This is the second challenge facing today’s young women—the need to demand more from the workplace with respect to mother’s rights.

Better maternity leave should be a major priority for today’s young women. Because no woman should ever have to choose between putting food on the table and spending time recovering and bonding with her newborn child. Currently the U.S. only legally protects a woman from being fired for becoming pregnant and only protects some women from losing their jobs after taking some period of short-term disability leave.

Excuse me for stating the obvious but it needs to be said: A woman who has given birth is not disabled. She is hard at work physically recovering and taking care of an extremely delicate human life—an enormous contribution to society from which all people benefit. That shouldn’t mean women are then forced to leave the working world, but our corporate and government policies should reflect the great value of bearing and raising the next generation of citizens.

Even those who aren’t mothers have an incentive to make workplaces more friendly to working moms.

The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world not to mandate paid maternity leave for mothers, and only 16 percent of U.S. companies surveyed in a 2008 Families and Work Institute report offer paid maternity leave. By contrast, most countries in the world mandate a period of 100 percent paid leave, often followed by a mandated period where women can work 60 to 80 percent of their normal hours. Even Saudi Arabia, not exactly a beacon of women’s rights, mandates four weeks of paid leave for mothers who have been under contract for at least a year, followed by six weeks of paid leave at 55 percent of mom’s income.

But until our policymakers catch up with the times, women can press their companies to do better. Three months of paid leave is a minimum. There are other smaller but intelligent changes in the workplace that we can also work toward.

Consider, for instance, breastfeeding. When women return to work, they often struggle with how to discreetly pump so that they can continue producing milk. Since most doctors and health organizations recommend nursing for a minimum of a year, that leaves typical mothers with several months of multiple pumping sessions a day in the office, awkwardly holding up bathroom stalls for as long as fifteen minutes at a time. At a minimum, workplaces should provide a space, even if small, for nursing mothers. The room should be private, sanitary, and comfortable—a place where a woman can go without alerting her entire office that she is about to strip down and attach suction cups to her breasts. This may sound like a challenge to offices, particularly small ones. But this is America—the richest and most entrepreneurial nation in the world. We can figure it out.

Childcare provides another opportunity for companies to aid mothers as they return to work. Larger offices could provide free or heavily subsidized on-site daycare. Imagine being able to walk out of your office, walk downstairs, and nurse and cuddle your child when you have a twenty-minute break. Another option is for companies to give automatic raises for new mothers to offset childcare costs or a childcare stipend, something provided to me by one of my progressive employers. Employers could also allow women to ease back into full-time work with shortened hours for a period while returning, as opposed to the violent switch from full-time at home to ten hours in the office that most women experience when their leave abruptly ends. Following that up by offering as much schedule flexibility as possible to both new moms and new dads is yet another way that offices can help new parents to maximize parent-time in those early and delicate years. There is a range of pro-woman, pro-mother health benefits that companies could provide to mothers such as covering the cost of doulas or lactation consultants.

Employers would no doubt balk at the cost of benefits and accommodations such as the above. But they should also bear in mind that while making investments in mothers can be expensive, they will reap a return on the investment when they are able to attract and keep talented women in the workforce longer—women who are happier and feeling more balanced and invested in their work. They will be less likely to lose the initial investment made in women they’ve hired and will reduce female turnover levels. And studies are increasingly finding that the presence of women in the workforce, especially in senior and executive roles, has a positive financial outcome for everyone. These studies reveal that the mere presence of women around men prompts them toward greater generosity and leads to higher wages for their employees. Another study recently found that when companies introduce women into the highest levels of management, they generated 1 percent more in revenue, more than $40 million dollars on average. Half of that is more than enough for a lovely on-site daycare center to help more women make it to the top.

Of course profit should not be the primary reason for making the workplace more humane for mothers. We should all continue to push for humane and intelligent workplace policies for working moms simply because treating mothers with honor and respect in the professional world is the right and just thing to do.