Motherís Work

Some working moms face job discrimination, while others encounter barriers to success. They're all potential activists for the new grass-roots group, MomsRising.

Mead and her husband want to raise their sons in San Francisco, but the mortgage payments and now private school payments for the older boy have kept both parents at work, and at the end of their ropes. "Lo and behold, it's brutal," Mead says ruefully. "We're kind of in the thick of it now — wondering, 'What the fuck are we doing?'"

After working part time for several years, Mead went back to work full time last spring at a video and TV production company. She found it more stressful than she had imagined. An epiphany came after her younger son's preschool asked her to teach yoga classes to the kids on Friday mornings. When the classes ended, she would rush back to her car, pull off her tights, pull on her skirt, speed to work, and run to her desk. She soon realized she couldn't keep up the schedule. She asked her company if she could cut back on her hours, but was told that wasn't an option. So she gave notice.

"I don't want it to be that because I have kids, I can't do this job, because I don't want to perpetuate the myth that women can't cut it because we're too distracted, or not committed enough," she says. "I was raised in the 'I Am Woman' '70s." Later, she writes in an e-mail, "I was raised to believe I could succeed professionally on a par with men AND mother in a satisfying and meaningful way. NOT POSSIBLE in America in 2007 or at least the Bay Area."

Mead's story illustrates the findings of a recent study by the nonprofit Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law called "Opt Out or Pushed Out? The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce." Many professional offices are still designed for the work force of the 1950s, the report states, in which male employees worked 40-hour weeks year after year, counting on the missus to keep the home fires burning. Today, 72 percent of American mothers work outside the home, yet companies have been slow to adapt to their needs with part-time or flex-time schedules. While companies may see such restructuring as difficult and daunting, MomsRising argues that having family-friendly policies in place will be a competitive advantage in the years to come. Demographers foresee a labor shortage as baby boomers start to retire; companies that can attract and retain skilled women will have a leg up.

Even when businesses do offer part-time or flexible schedules, many women complain that if they accept that option, their bosses consider them less committed and ambitious. One San Francisco woman, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing her job, says she was demoted to a "second-class citizen" at her accounting firm after having her first child in 2004. She was back at her desk eight weeks later, but on a part-time schedule. She says she is no longer asked to participate in office activities like mentoring, recruiting, and marketing for the firm — activities in which prospective partners are expected to excel. She feels lucky to have a part-time position that works for her, she says, but certain things still rankle, like no longer qualifying for holiday pay and not being told about some managerial meetings. Her husband also works reduced hours at his job, the woman notes, but that hasn't hampered his career in the same way.

MomsRising hopes to coax employers to commit to policies that are more welcoming for working moms, through tax breaks and government incentives, but first the group is focusing on an even more blatant form of discrimination. A professor of sociology at Cornell University conducted an experiment, asking prospective employers to evaluate the resumes of candidates with equivalent education and experience; the only difference was that half the candidates declared that they had children at home, and half revealed other biographical details. The mothers were 44 percent less likely to be offered a job, and those who did get offers saw $11,000 less in salary, on average.

In January 2007, MomsRising will support a bill in Pennsylvania to outlaw what Blades calls "maternal profiling," the practice of asking potential employees if they have kids or a husband. "This issue makes really clear the depths of discrimination against mothers, especially against single mothers," says Blades. When struggling single moms are denied jobs because of their families, it only confirms the stereotype that they can't succeed on their own. "You're asking these women to do something that's really impossible for them, because the system is so stacked against them," says Blades.

Seven months in, MomsRising is still announcing its existence and gathering strength — it counts about 55,000 members so far. Its Web site sells branded T-shirts and necklaces, along with The Motherhood Manifesto DVD and the book of the same name, co-written by Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner. Neither the book nor the DVD qualifies as a riveting work of nonfiction; they're organizing tools, with enough statistics to help one win an argument against Bill O'Reilly and rousing calls to action that shepherd potential new members toward the Web site.

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