I had two members of the press call me yesterday to ask me what I think about Elizabeth Vargas taking time off to have a baby. Do I think that this is somehow wrong? As co-founder of MomsRising.org and co-author of The Motherhood Manifesto I am now a person that gets asked this kind of question. I'm bemused. I'm shocked. Good grief! Who is going to judge a woman as underperforming for taking time off to be with her new baby! Certainly not me. MomsRising is all about saying women/parents should have choices. They should be able to decide the best way to care for their family. What offends me is when mothers can't take any needed time off because they must choose between caring for their child and feeding their child. When I learned that out of 168 countries we are one of only 4 that do not provide working mothers with paid maternity leave I became aware of just how far out of the mainstream the U.S. is in terms of family policy. Having a baby is not just a personal decision like getting a puppy, and when we treat it like one, failing to provide support for new parents that is crucial to the success of their family, we are failing ourselves because in 20 years we are going to feel the consequences of that neglect. But I am getting side tracked...
The real issue is will Elizabeth Valsquez be able to return to her career without it being forever diminished by her choice to take time off to be with her young children? Data shows that most mothers never economically recover from taking time off. Their career path is henceforth constrained. Look in the halls of power. How many women are in boardrooms, in the Senate, in leadership? And how many of the women leaders there are mothers? The fact is, we need mothers in leadership. They provide a very important voice and understanding. Corporations that have women in leadership are the stronger for it. Legislatures that have more women in leadership have better family policies. It is not a given that careers must be linear, it is a tradition.
Traditions change. Now most women work. It is time to use our understanding of the problem to remove the barriers for mothers. Example: The vast majority of tenured professors at universities are men. There is a logical explanation for this. It just so happens that traditionally the time when professors work for tenure, a time of intense work, coincides with the time most women must choose to have children or not. 82% of women become mothers by the time they are 44. One can see how this system might strongly select against women gaining tenure. Seeing the consequence of traditional tenure-track policies some universities have decided to make it possible for parents to take time off to have children without giving up their ambitions for full professorship. It is good for the university, good for the children, and good for the parents.
A 2005 a study revealed that given equivalent resumes mothers are 44% less likely to be hired than non-mothers when applying for a job. Not only that, the mothers that were offered the job were offered $11,000 less than non-mothers on average. Mothers should not be punished for choosing to take time off when they have a baby, or for being a mother. Rather than denying them jobs and offering them lower wages when they are ready to return to the workplace they should be welcomed back on an even footing. Mothers are a huge source of talent and productivity for our country. Many of us believe that with a modicum of thoughtful adjustment to our expectations and practices we can stop discriminating against mothers in hiring and wages.