Noel Burgess '13
Labor Relations and Human Resources
Breaking down the MaternalAre women not capable of being equally committed to their children and their job? Is it possible for women to excel at parenthood and a career? A bias against women, which is predicated on a stereotype that links motherhood with a lack of commitment and competence also known as the “Maternal Wall” suggests it isn’t possible. A probable reason for the misperception of work commitment of mothers by employers is rooted in socially constructed gender roles.
Social Constructionism and Gender Role
Social Role Theory is a perspective that men and women behave differently in social situations and take on distinctive roles, because of the expectations society puts upon them.[i] The concept of gender roles is a set of rules to describe how men and women should be behaving and how they really behave stemming from expectations established in Social Role Theory[ii]. So how does this apply to mothers in the workplace? Social expectations of gender roles may lead to the perception that women are associated with a domestic role and men with a provider role. Consequently these beliefs can lead to attitudes, which influence employers on female workers once they become mothers, because women are expected to be more committed to their children, thus less committed to their work.[iii]
Commitment, Sex-Role Attitudes, and Women’s Employment
Work commitment of women cannot be inferred from the assumption of gender roles in society. [iv] . To conceptualize women’s role in employment I pose these questions: (1) What is the connection between attitudes, work commitment, and behavior? (2) Does work commitment remain stable as women accommodate employment behavior to family contingencies? (3) Finally, do sex role attitudes impact the perception of women’s behavior at work? Bielby and Bielby’s research findings support the idea that work commitment is stable over time and is differentiated from gender role beliefs. However their research supports that work commitment had an impact on employment behavior, but gender roles had no effect on the behavior of employees. Thus, mothers working fewer hours weren’t caused by lack of commitment; women are changing their behavior at work because of the burden of raising their children.
Commitment and Behavior of Women at Work Over Time
How is the pattern of women’s labor force behavior related to their current subjective feelings of commitment at various life stages? How does present psychological commitment to work affect subsequent labor force participation? To understand the basis for these questions two distinct approaches must be explained. First, a limited resource approach is the notion that people have a fixed amount of emotional investment, time, and energy to give. This relates to the perception of work commitment because of the current opinion of women is that their time and energy will be allocated toward their children thus less of those resources will be invested in work. The second approach is an expansionist approach, which can be described a person being able to have enough resources to allot equal resources to family and work without neglecting either. I subscribe to the latter, women whether married with children or single believe work is more than just a paycheck. Furthermore many women with heavy family obligations still maintain a strong psychological commitment in spite of the inability to maintain continuous full time hours.[v] The notion that a woman who has a family with children automatically translates into a lack of work commitment is false.
I have posited that women face a “maternal wall” in the workplace because of the misconceptions of the decision makers in the workplace. Furthermore I have argued that motherhood doesn’t necessarily correlate with lack of commitment to work. Allotment of time, energy, and motivation for a woman concerning her family and work, influences her work behavior but that is different than the idea of motherhood directly effecting work commitment.[vi] Gender roles may explain why men and women have perceptions and expectation about the sexes, but it certainly does not excuse them. It will take more than breaking down the “maternal wall” to counteract the misperceptions of mothers. This phenomenon is the direct consequence of rigid and archaic stereotypes people hold to, established long before they entered the workplace. Perhaps instead of knocking down a wall, which is the built upon an outdated base, people should look a bit deeper to the foundation and start there!
[i] Eagly, A.H. (1987) Sex Difference in Social Behavior: A Social role interpretation.
[ii] Eagly, A.H. & Steffen, V.J., (1986). Gender Stereotypes, Occupational Roles, and Beliefs about part time employees. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 10, 252-262
[iii] Halrynjo, S., & Lyng, S. T. (2009). Preferences, constraints or schemas of devotion? Exploring Norwegian mothers’ withdrawals from high-commitment careers The British Journal of Sociology, 60(2), 321-343.
[iv] Bielby, D. D. V., & Bielby, W. (1984). Work Commitment, Sex-Role, and Women’s Employment. American Sociological Review, 49, 234-247.
[v] Moen, P. & Smith, Ken (1986). Women at Work: Commitment and Behavior Over the Life Course. Sociological Forum, 1(3), 450-474.
[vi] King, E. (2008). The effect of bias on the advancement of working mothers: Disentangling legitimate concerns from inaccurate stereotypes as predictors of advancement in academe. Human Relation, 61(12), 1677-1711