Media Spotlight

A psychological twist on the news.

Mothers in the Workplace

Are working mothers more likely to face demeaning treatment in the workplace?

Today, more mothers work outside the home than ever before.   According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,  the percentage of mothers with children under the age of eighteehn who worked outside the home has risen from forty-five percent in 1975 to nearly seventy-one percent by 2012.  

Despite the rising number of working mothers in the workforce however, they still face tremendous challenges including the limited availability of daycare and frequent discrimination by employers.   Working mothers typically earn less than women without children, even when other factors such as education and work commitment are taken into account.  This problem is aggravated in states without laws to protect working mothers and the issue of mothers in the workplace continues to invite controversy even today

But what about the simple respect that any worker should receive in the workplace?   Are working mothers more likely to face rude and demeaning treatment from employers and co-workers?   Workplace incivility, defined as "low-intensity workplace behavior that is rude and discourteous and violates norms of interpersonal dignity and respect" can take many forms.   Whether it involves condescending treatment, being excluded from formal or informal professional gatherings, or having work undermined in front of other workers, workplace incivility can lead to lower job satisfaction, higher job turnover, and psychological distress.   Despite the  discrimination often faced by working mothers, research into the kind of workplace incivility they face has been limited up to now. 

Among the issues that can lead to greater workplace incivility for mothers in the workforce are the gender sterotypes that portray them as less devoted to their careers than non-mothers.  This is especially true in high-demand professions that call for emotional toughness and competition (such as law or finance).   Not only are working mothers often seen as lacking the determination to get ahead, they may also be regarded as violating social norms by failing to be "ideal mothers", i.e., putting their work ahead of their children.  

Mothers are also expected to act as primary caregivers for their children which can mean needing to take time off work or not being available for business travel as required by their employers.   Employers and coworkers may express their own hostility towards working mothers leading to negative work appraisals and a poor work environment.  

While working fathers are increasingly sharing childcare duties with their spouses, the pressure placed on them is rarely as great since gender stereotypes tend to allow them more latitude.  In general, working mothers tend to be held to higher standards regarding work performance and time management than nonmothers, a finding that has been confirmed by numerous sociology studies.

One 2007 study comparing undergraduates and actual employers found that mothers were often more likely than nonmothers to be regarded as less competent and poorly motivated to succeed.   As a result, working mothers often received a lower starting salary than nonmothers regardless of any difference in qualifications.   For male applicants however, parental status had little impact on hiring decisions.   Other studies found that even mothers participating in work-family programs such as telecommuting receive less wage growth than mothers who do not participate.

While mothers in the workplace are often penalized more than non-mothers,  the amount of workplace incivility they receive often rises with the number of children that they have.    At the same time, though mothers often face workplace incivility,  the motherhood role can make them better able to cope with harsh treatment.  Research has shown that having multiple roles  can lead to greater life satisfaction, better relationships, and reduced depression.  Still, dealing with the stress of multiple children, in addition to workplace problems can be overwhelming despite the support mothers receive at home.

Compared to mothers however, fathers in the workplace are often treated more favourably than nonfathers.  Men with children typically receive higher starting salaries and are held to lower performance standards than nonparents. This preferential status typically means that fathers receive a range of benefits that are often denied to working mothers, including promotions, job offers, and training opportunities.    The preferential status that many fathers enjoy usually stems from the prevailing general stereotype of the man as the family "breadwinner."    Interestingly enough, there is less evidence for the positive benefits of multiple roles in men than in women.

An ambitious new research study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology provides an in-depth look at how motherhood status predicted workplace incivility.   Conducted by Kathi N. Miner of Texas A&M University and a team of fellow researchers,, the research also examined the positive benefits of multiple roles for both males and females.    Since the legal profession is seen as highly prestigious and male-dominated, the study focused on male and female law professors to determine how often workplace incivility actually occurs.  

Males and females belonging to the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in 2004 were contacted to participate in the study with a final sample of  594 women and 640 men with ages ranging from 27 to 80.  All participants completed an online survey measuring workplace incivility, parental status, job satisfaction, job turnover, depression, and level of professional commitment.   Men and women who were not currently caring for children were classified as nonparents (even if they had raised children in the past).   Overall, 57 percent of women participants were mothers and 49 percent of male participants were fathers.   Workplace incivility was measured by items such as "During the past year, has another law school faculty member made insulting or disrespectful remarks to you?”

Though there was no overall difference between mothers and non-mothers in terms of experiencing workplace incivility,  women did report greater incivility depending on the number of children they had.   Women with three or more children were significantly more likely to encounter incivility in the workplace than women with two or fewer children.   Not surprisingly, women who reported experiencing incivility at work also reported lower job satisfaction, more symptoms of depression, and were more likely to consider leaving their jobs.  Still, women with no children who encountered workplace incivility reported lower job satisfaction and higher depression than women with two or more children.

The results were somewhat different for men.   Fathers reported being more likely to encounter workplace incivility than nonfathers but there seemed to be no difference in terms of number of children (fathers with three or more children received the same incivility as fathers with only one child).    As expected, workplace incivility was also linked to lower job satisfaction, higher symptoms of depression, and increased likelihood of job turnover.   

Direct comparison of mothers and fathers showed that mothers reported more incidents of workplace incivility than fathers.   As well, women with no children were more likely to experience workplace incivility than men with no children.   As for whether being a parent helped men handle workplace incivility as well as women, the results showed no real net benefit for men as it did with women.

While these results didn't match the results found in previous studies looking at the workplace incivility faced by mothers, women are still far more likely to experience workplace incivility than men.   As well, having children can act as a strong buffering factor that can help women and men cope with the stress associated with a negative workplace.  Though men with children also reported workplace problems (if not to the same extent as women with children), being a father did not appear to have the same protective effect that it did with women.

As Kathi Miner and her colleagues point out, some of the findings can be due to the study focusing on law professionals since the legal profession is still male-dominated.  As a result, work duties tend to be regarded as more important than family-oriented activities with less tolerance for conflicts that occur due to family demands.   

Still, women without children seem to be far more prone to workplace incivility than men without children.   While there is no clear explanation at present, Miner et al speculate that this may be due to traditional stereotypes about gender roles.  Thus,  non-mothers can be seen as selfish, aggressive, and “trying to act like men” making them more likely to receive uncivil treatment in the workplace as punishment. 

While law school professors are hardly representative of the average mother in the workplace (which Miner and her colleagues acknowledge),  these results reflect how working mothers are often treated.  Not only are women more likely to face workplace incivility than men due to questions about their competence and commitment to their jobs, but the amount of uncivil behaviour they receive can be adversely affected by the number  of children that they have.   Also, working mothers can draw on the emotional resources that come from caring for children to protect themselves from the stress they often experience. 

While employers are often unwilling to make allowances for family-related duties, the rise of working mothers has raised new challenges that make it more important than ever to recognize the need for greater flexibility in treating workers.  Child care is a part of modern life and protecting workers from mistreatment over family-related duties is just good business sense.  

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

more...

Subscribe to Media Spotlight

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?