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Women in the workforce

Motherhood and the workplace: Is it getting better?

When Annabelle Kipnis started working in retail 15 years ago, she found that the workplace isn’t always kind to women.

“[There was] an unwritten policy passed down through upper and area management that we should not hire women who had small children because it 'complicates things’ when the kids get sick,” she says. “We also were discouraged from hiring pregnant women and were coached on ways of legally finding out if female interviewees were pregnant or had children.”

She no longer works for that company.

Not so long ago, a woman’s career options were limited to schoolteacher, nurse, secretary or, of course, full-time wife and mother. Today we see women in a variety of occupations that were once only the domain of men.

Yet, for all of these positive changes, the career playing field isn’t quite level either.

Americanprogress.org reports that women in the United States still earn only 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, more than 45 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963.

Currently, 15 Fortune 500 companies - about 3 percent - have women CEOs, and women hold about 15 percent of the board of director seats, according to Catalyst.org.

And, as Kipnis’s experience shows, there is often subtle discrimination against working mothers. 

According to the Pew Research Center, women now make up almost half of the U.S. labor force, up from 38 percent in 1970. And it’s not uncommon for women to out-earn their husbands, making them the primary breadwinner for their families. 

With working women being the rule rather than the exception, American attitudes have shifted. The Pew Research Center says some 75 percent of Americans “reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles in society, and most believe that both husband and wife should contribute to the family income.”

While this data may seem promising at first, the reality of being a working mother is quite different. Working mothers face very difficult decisions.
Further complicating matters is the lack of paid maternity (or paternity) leave, a lack of quality, affordable childcare options and a lingering cultural attitude that says working mothers cannot mother their children as well as stay-at-home mothers. 

Karen Perry was a successful marketing professional when she became pregnant with her son, Cash, who is now a year and a half old. She returned to work after her maternity leave, but found herself conflicted. It didn’t help that her boss seemed to expect her to be less committed to her job. 

Perry says, “My boss would share his thoughts with my co-worker and then she would tell me. He would tell her things like he was surprised I even came back from maternity leave and he wondered when I was going to quit.”

Perry says that her boss slowly stopped including her in planning meetings, leaving her to feel like a persona non grata around the office. It didn’t help that the person she had lined up for childcare didn’t work out.

After about three months, Perry quit her job to become a full-time mom, even though the decision meant that she and her husband’s income would be cut by two-thirds.

She says that, though the decision has been difficult financially, she doesn’t regret it. She adds that she feels that people treat her differently, but in a positive way.

“I feel . . . I’m unfairly treated better than moms who work,” she says. “People attribute our decision to either luck or some sort of higher moral standards, neither of which are true.”

She says she’s been praised for risking her family’s financial stability to be a stay-at-home-mom. “I’ve been praised for my Christian values and I’m not even a Christian! It’s a very personal choice.”

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On the other side of the coin, there is a growing legion of men who stay home to be full-time caregivers and they face different issues and cultural biases.

Paul Schwartz was a Bay-area labor attorney when his wife, Amy, became pregnant with their son. Given his long hours, he wasn’t sure how he could balance working with parenthood.

When his wife suggested that he quit to be a stay-at-home dad, he says the moment was something of an epiphany for him.

“I wanted be an active part in raising our child, and the only way to do that with that job was to quit working outside the home.”

He says their lives are much less hectic because he’s able to take care of the errands and other daily necessities during the week, leaving the family’s weekends free to enjoy.

As for Amy, she says the situation allows her to take on new opportunities at work and handle whatever comes her way—and she doesn’t feel guilty for her choices. Paul chronicles his life as a stay-at-home-dad on his blog.

Schwartz remembers what one of his law school professors used to say: that there won’t be gender equity in the workforce until men become equally responsible for child care.

Despite cultural changes over the years in which men have assumed a more active role in the family, in most homes, women remain the primary caregivers and caretakers of the household. And, as long as that is the case, it would seem that real workplace change will be slow in coming.

What's your take?

Any other stay-at-home parents running into problems?

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Courtesy Perry family

Karen Perry - with her husband, Matthew, and son, Cash - left her job in marketing when she felt she was being excluded at work.

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