Dismantling the 'maternal wall'

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Dismantling the 'maternal wall'

by Sharon Meers on Friday, July 16, 2010 - 7:11am

Originally posted on July 16, 2010 in The Washington Post. sharon_meers_145In my late twenties, I asked my boyfriend how he thought having a family might work. Our standard weekday ended with dinner at 9pm, after 12+ hours at the office. "I know just how it will work," my boyfriend gamely replied. He grabbed a pad and sketched out our future. He drew stick figures of himself, me and two hypothetical children. In the center of his diagram, he penciled in Mary, our housekeeper, who came in a few hours a week to save us from dust bunnies. "We'll do just what we do now," my boyfriend told me, "and Mary will take care of us." I laughed. I was no expert on running a family, but I had a feeling it was going to take more effort. The gender gap in domestic life is the stuff of comedy. I remember handing salad fixings to a male friend, who turned to me and asked, "But how do you cut a tomato?" I saw tomato dicing as a unisex skill. He saw it as something women know how to do. It was just one tomato, I know. But these social expectations, small and silly as they are, compound into big results that aren't so funny. The Project for Attorney Retention at UC Hastings Law School last week released a report that shows the expense of allowing different norms for men and women to persist. Researchers at UC Hastings have long collected data on the "Maternal Wall," the dramatic drop in career success when women (even those working full time) become mothers across all job types. But this new survey looks at women at the top: 700 female law partners, a highly talented and hard-working cohort. Guess what? On average, they earn 22% less than their male partners. Why? The new report points to a host of "soft" social expectations with hard consequences. When you think of a "rainmaker," does a woman or man come to mind? Consider "origination credit." When a team of lawyers wins a new client, "origination credit" goes to the person who can most convincingly claim rights to signing up the business. But this judgment is subjective and clouded by gender norms. Cornell University psychiatrist Anna Fels has studied the acknowledgment gap between men and women, the fact we instinctively give male wins "praise and recognition" but -- due to norms, not malice -- find it psychologically more difficult to acknowledge female wins. In addition, other research says that a woman is more likely to be deemed a poor team player if she defends her turf with the same vigor as a man would. Among the women in the new UC Hastings study, the vast majority say they have disputes over origination credits. Over a quarter felt they were bullied into ceding ground. The consequence? Only half of women feel highly satisfied with their compensation while 71% of men do. That's good for no one. Now, before someone says we need have no sympathy for high-earning female law partners, let's remember that this dynamic occurs at every level of the pay scale. The law-partner example is notable because it shows how social norms undermine even professionals who make a living negotiating for others. I started speaking at Stanford Business School a few years ago, at a course called "Work and Family." In it, students take a hard-nosed look at the many factors -- hours, chores, trade offs -- that go into combining strong careers and happy children. By this time, my two hypothetical kids had become real ones, thanks to another guy (who was bigger on planning,) and we both had demanding jobs we enjoyed. But as students commented and asked questions in class, I saw that the gap remains. The women over-worried about work-family balance, while the men under-worried, just like me and my ex-boyfriend had a decade prior. Maternal walls, glass ceilings, gender gaps: What can we do to dismantle these barriers? A young women once called me for career advice. I was honored but surprised when she showed up with these questions: "How do I tell my husband that I have to work late more often? That my job counts too? That he needs to pick up the slack with the kids?" She didn't want to work less, she wanted him to understand more. She needed help raising the sensitive topic of social norms for men and women. At the time, I felt very unqualified to answer these very good questions. But now I know what I'd tell her: There's a wealth of research showing everyone wins when we, men and women, share more common ground. For example, studies now imply that when a kid is sick, if the father stays home with the child that day, he will likely suffer fewer consequences at work than his wife would if she did it, because our social norms say that men are more committed to work than women are. Even if we strongly disagree with that norm, let's take advantage of it. If more men know there's an arbitrage, that men pay a lower cost for being home with junior's fever than their wives do, wouldn't more reasonable, caring fathers do this? 50-50bookcoverWhile researching our book, Getting to 50/50, I talked to the retired CEO of a large publicly traded company. "In my experience, women get unreliable when they become mothers and often aren't good workers," he told me as he listed behaviors that were undeniably flaky. "But what about fathers who spend as much energy on their home life as those mothers do?" I asked him. "Are those men bad employees?" This question prompted a frank discussion between the two of us. We agreed that when fathers see themselves as competent around the house, they can often help their wives see ways to cut the burdens of childcare, cooking and cleaning -- and that sharing the load lets women do right by their jobs and lets men do right by their kids. "I agree," the ex-CEO told me, "but almost no one lives that way." I smiled and told him that, in fact, many people do, even if few talk about it. Yet.