The Kid-Ceiling: Women Feel It Long Before Seeing Glass-Ceiling

The "Maternal Wall" raises glaring barriers for working women.

Posted Sep 20, 2008

The kid-ceiling seems to have little or no effect on Sarah Palin, but for most women who work having a family alters their income, their ability to advance, and their well-being. All is not right in the world of women's work and the glaring deficiencies force more women to move in the direction of the smaller, new traditional family. In this post I look at some of the more telling issues and facts. The more children you have, the more likely you'll feel the impact of the kid-ceiling long before you see the glass-ceiling.

Call it what you will

The "kid-ceiling," "maternal wall," "mommy gap," "baby gap," "motherhood penalty" or "mommy track"-it boils down to the same thing: barriers and obstacles for women who work and want to move up AND raise a family. The kid-ceiling confronts women in both obvious and subtle ways. Employers' attitudes, the lack of on-the-job flexibility and support for mothers in the workplace, and salary gaps between male and female workers further underscore the strong bias that exists against women.

Employers' Attitude

During dinner with a group of friends not too long ago I had a heated argument with Dave, the head of a fairly sizable law firm. Dave announced that he didn't want to hire women attorneys. "It's a waste of time and resources," he said. "You put all this money into training them and then they leave as soon as they have children."

With law schools turning out at least 50 percent female attorneys, Dave is greatly narrowing his field. More striking is his thinking. It dates back a of couple generations when women stayed home to raise their children. This underlying mind-set lingers widely, ignoring the fact that the majority of women work, most because they have to. In a presidential address to the American Psychological Association a few years ago, Diane Halpern noted, that "despite changes in the workforce, the world of work is still largely organized for a family model that is increasingly rare-one with a stay-at-home caregiver."

These personal stories collected by Northern Colorado psychologist Jill Kuhn and reported in The Feminist Psychologist illustrate how deep in the dark ages companies and their policies remain:

--"My boss attempted to get me to agree to attend a retreat scheduled two days after my due date. When I explained why this would not be a good idea, she replied, "Can't you get a sitter?"
--"When I told my boss that my infant was scheduled to have a surgical procedure, I was told that I needed to return to work that same day after lunch."
--"When I told my boss I was pregnant he replied, "I can't believe you are doing this to me."

This excerpt from an article in Educational Psychology Review, "Nurturing careers in psychology: Combining work and family," reminds us how difficult it is to work and have the family you hoped for. What researchers discovered brings home the reality that women are scaling back family size in reaction to the treatment and attitudes of employers in all fields:

"...women faculty who have babies within the first 5 years following the receipt of their doctorate are less likely to earn tenure than women without babies or men in general. Women at research-intensive universities are twice as likely as their male colleagues to report that they had fewer children than they wanted. In addition, only one-third of women who begin their academic career at research-intensive institutions without children will become a mother."

For those that do, pregnancy alone is difficult in many places of business. According to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a federal commission found: "In 2005, 4,449 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the commission or state and local employment agencies around the country. Half were related to unlawful dismissals either during a pregnancy or immediately after returning from maternity leave...Between 1992 and 2005, the number of pregnancy discrimination charges in the United States went up by 31 percent even while the national birth rate decreased."

Dollars and Timing

Women experience interruptions in their careers in order to care for children (and many for aging parents as well). These interruptions discussed by Steven Rose and Heidi Hartmann for the Institute for Women's Policy Research are costly: "Across the 15 years of the study, the average prime age working woman earned only $273,592 while the average working man earned $722,693 (in 1999 dollars)."

The Journal of Family and Economic Issues summarized a study by saying that "white women experience the largest threat to wages as a result of conventional gender ideology. Further, the number of children and the timing of childbearing are detrimental to black and white women's earnings, while neither of these factors hampers men's earnings." As significant as those differences are, the biggest gap is between women with children and those without.

Female workers today have to make lifestyle choices about how far up the ladder they want to climb and who and what will hold them back. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist, in an article for the Harvard Business Review explains the timing factor that works against women. "There's a certain age, long established by large organizations, at which professionals must decide to make their play for the big promotion-the one that will put them in line for the C-suite-and while it's a good time for men, it's not a good time for women."  Makes good sense especially when combined with all women have to do.

Wear and Tear

In a previous post I asked, If Men Helped More, Would Women Have More Babies? Today I'm asking: what can be done to make having a family and raising the children easier on women? The workday has been stretched. With cell phones and e-mail and portable devices to receive work or answer questions anytime day or night, employees are on-call 24/7. When a woman works, it's likely that playing a game of Candyland or going for a walk with her children may have to wait until the weekend.

Most working women face a combination of the high cost of raising children and working to pay the bills. The pressures force many of them to choose between limiting the number of children they have and climbing their workplace ladder. The kid-ceiling with its dollar inequities and employers' views affects everything from women's titles to paychecks, from how many hours they work to how guilty they feel about the child they have, the children they want, and the time to attend to them in the ways they had hoped they could.

There are solutions to help break down the kid-ceiling, but are they governmental, corporate, or personal?

For more on this topic, see: Women at the Top: Not So Fast and The Great Divide: Working Moms vs. Childless Women

Copyright by Susan Newman