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Keli Goff

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Has Mommy-ism Replaced Sexism? (And Is That a Bad Thing?)

Posted: 09/14/10 11:29 AM ET

For those on the frontlines of the feminist movement, last week was the equivalent of winning a significant battle in an ongoing war. According to U.S. census data, working women under thirty are out-earning their male counterparts.

There's just one caveat: the women in question are childless.

The data seems to confirm a long held suspicion that is rarely publicly discussed, particularly among supporters of the equal pay for equal work movement: that sexism can often take different forms and different levels of intensity depending on whether or not a woman has children. But even more controversial, that being child-free can possibly neutralize gender based discrimination altogether, impacting whether or not a woman is ever a victim of sexism in pay and promotions in the first place.

The results seem to indicate that sexism in some corners is being usurped by mommy-ism, discrimination not based on sex but based on the decision to become a parent. This raises a fundamental question: Is paying, or promoting someone less for becoming, or planning to become a parent, sexism?

In the quest for equal justice it is easy to believe in and speak in absolutes, or black and white, but we all know that much of the real world operates in shades of gray.

For instance, it is easy to say that any person should be allowed to build the family of his or her choice without fear of losing his or her job or promotions, and the law should protect this right accordingly. But how would you feel if your boss told you that he was hiring a temp to help you finish a demanding project, due within months. The temp's name? Michelle Duggar, of 19 kids and counting fame. Even the most tolerant among us would not be happy campers.

While most of us can find agreement when it comes to someone like Mrs. Duggar (whose family is considered extreme in its size even by the most open-minded standards), it becomes much murkier and much touchier for anyone with less children.

One child certainly isn't an extreme number by anyone's standards, but if you are the manager of a presidential campaign, for instance, and you discover that you are due to give birth a few weeks before Election Day, this will have an impact on your colleagues, the candidate and the campaign. For anyone to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. (It is worth noting that though it is widely held that her "resignation," was not by choice, Hillary Clinton's first presidential Campaign Manager, Patti Solis Doyle, did also cite the grueling election schedule's impact on her children as one reason she stepped aside.)

In one of the first high profile cases like it, Dena Lockwood, a single mom in Illinois won a six figure settlement from her former employer this year after being fired for taking a day off to address her daughter's pinkeye. Her case was not, however, handled under federal statute because there isn't one that directly addresses this issue. Instead she filed her complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. In reading about the case her employers certainly come across as jerks, paying her less when she was in fact doing just as much as her childless counterparts, and Lockwood should have recouped compensation for this obvious disparity in treatment. But one of the facts in the case used to demonize her employer should not have. Namely that Lockwood was asked early on if her children would prevent her from working the 70 hours a week that everyone else was. It's easy to assume that a question like this could only be posed in an inherently sexist environment that did not value the contributions of women. That assumption would wrong. Most of the employees at the company during Lockwood's tenure were women, well compensated ones.

A writer for the parenting blog Babble heralded the Lockwood case as a watershed moment, writing that "Lawsuits are an important way to hold employers accountable, but fundamental change in employer policies will only come about once parental discrimination is viewed in the same light as gender or race bias." This of course is ridiculous, and statements like this help perpetuate bias against all women.

Personal choices that can legitimately impact your ability to do your job should not receive the blanket protections of inherent uncontrollable conditions (like race or gender) that do not. No you shouldn't be discriminated against out of turn for the choice to be a devout evangelical Christian but if you're applying for a job as a stripper, and your chosen religion is going to impact how quickly your clothes come off (or whether they do at all) then an employer has a right to know that off the bat and to make employment decisions based on that accordingly.

The debate around this issue cuts across political party lines. Early in her emergence on the national stage, Sarah Palin took some of her harshest criticism from fellow conservative women for the decision to join a presidential campaign after having recently given birth to a special needs child, (and while raising four others.) Kathleen Rice, a Democratic Attorney General candidate locked in a tight primary fight in New York today, recently came under fire for requesting that working mothers on flextime schedules in her District Attorney's office, begin working full-time or resign, an allegation that has been highlighted in a hilariously over-the top attack ad from one of her male opponents which you can view here. (The criticism didn't stop Rice from snagging the endorsement of feminist icon Gloria Steinem.)

There have also been a series of recent exchanges in the media debating why so few women ascend the upper echelons of the tech world. I was frankly surprised by the fact that the parenting issue seemed largely ignored in the back and forth, until one enterprising commenter pulled "startup guru" Paul Graham into the fray. This commenter noted that in an appearance before the Harvard Computer Society, Graham said, "One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you're not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon."

Here's my biggest concern with Mr. Graham's statement (aside from the obvious which is that he doesn't appear to like any anti-discrimination laws, and as a black woman I kind of do), he addresses one of the greatest dangers posed to all working women in not tackling the mommy-ism versus sexism schism head on. His statement gives voice to what others in workplaces governed by anti-discrimination laws likely feel, but know that legally they cannot say on the record, which is this: "I am not concerned that you are a woman. I could care less as long as you can do the job and do it well. But I am concerned that after gaining and training a valuable employee like you, I may then lose you for a significant amount of time, possibly more than once, because of your completely valid choice to give birth and have a family. I may even applaud that choice on a personal level, but on a professional level it may impact our company, and our revenue and I have to care about that."

But since there are employers who cannot say this out loud, so that women can address such concerns openly and honestly, (i.e. "my husband and I will have children someday but not for at least two-three years" or "yes I have five kids, but I also have a very involved husband and in-laws," a la Palin) my concern is that some employers may simply write off women of a certain age altogether in the hiring and promotion process, considering that to be a safer and more cost effective alternative to facing a lawsuit for asking the "wrong question" in an interview or performance review.

And frankly, I consider this a greater threat to gender equality than an employer doing due diligence to insure that he or she doesn't accidentally hire Michelle Duggar.

Which brings me to what I truly believe is the last great battleground of the gender wars. As I said on MSNBC's "The Dylan Ratigan Show" yesterday, we have more female Supreme Court Justices than we have ever had, a female Speaker of the House and came thisclose to electing the first female president (and Vice-president). My point? Soon we're going to run out of men to blame for inequality ladies--except for the ones living in our houses. The only way women are going to achieve true parity with men, is by convincing the ones in our lives to help us do so. Instead of pressuring the men in our management offices to help us achieve work/life balance how about pressuring the men in our homes to help out more with the kids?

Only then will we achieve true gender equality.

This piece originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.

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