I spoke with Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media about the media's portrayal of working mothers and pregnant women....
Q: What do you think of the current news media portrayal of working women and how it's changed over your career?
A: There are three big changes from the time I started Working Mother in 1979.
The biggest change is that working mothers went from being a real kind of working class image, and then they went to a "high executive" image in the media -- it sort of bounced up and down in the media. And now the portrayal is much more well-rounded: working mothers can be in any type of job, in any type of image. It's gotten a little more realistic.
Number two is that it's become much more popular. I cannot believe how Hollywood has become obsessed with working mothers -- not so much working mothers but celebrity mothers. All the celebrity magazines -- they seem to have one topic: who's pregnant. The baby bump -- I mean, this is a phenomenon. Even 10 or 15 years ago, it was hidden, no one saw it, you had a baby, you dropped out of sight and out of Hollywood. When you came back it was a couple of years later. Now it is a nationwide obsession with pregnancy. I think it's wonderful. The minute the baby is born, though -- this poor woman, who is so beautiful, she's supposed to be right back into shape. And she's never supposed to age after that. No aging allowed! The excruciating standards the Hollywood stars are held up to -- it's got its goods and bads. It's wonderful that pregnancy is seen as such a beautiful thing, but it's a shame that motherhood is framed against a backdrop of such beauty [that] no one can live up to.
Q: Do you think that all the celebrities being pregnant has helped normalize the thought of pregnant women in the workplace?
A: Yes, I really do. I think it's helped a lot to popularize the pregnant body as a beautiful thing. I see women walking down the streets of every city I go to, and no ones' covering their baby bump they are showing it off as fast as they can. When I was pregnant 22 and 19 years ago we were wearing bulky jackets over our belly. We were pretty much hiding it. People were wearing their skirts unzipped as long as they could -- anything to not reveal [the pregnancy]. And now it's like, get that baby out there!
Pregnant women are showing their bellies at work. They're not wearing suit jackets to cover their bellies. A pregnant body used to be something that scared people, and made people uncomfortable. Thirty years ago people were uncomfortable with pregnant bodies, it caused a lot of alarm on the job. They thought people might have the baby on the job. The image of pregnancy has changed from being unhealthy to being healthy. Now we see pregnancy as a thing of being vital. That's a beautiful change. It's very important because the mindset of the woman becomes one of pride. If you feel like you should be hiding this, it's impossible. If you can just let it be something you're proud of, your mindset is so much better.
The popularization of pregnancy is a good thing. We've popularized pregnancy through the normal medium of celebrity worship [laughs]. The bad side is we really feel like you're supposed to be absolutely gorgeous after the baby is born. And birth is a very difficult physical process; it's a medical issue. We need to allow women time to recover without expectations being so high.
The third thing that's changed is I think there's a real awareness that the news media itself has used motherhood as a news-maker. But I doubt the general public is buying it so much anymore. There's more skepticism about how media portrays motherhood now -- the mommy wars -- people are so tired of hearing that. They almost think it's something the media is driving, as opposed to reality. There's more sophistication about how the news media is reporting the current status of moms.
Q: Do you think the news media somehow engenders the image that the working mother is going to be permanently stressed out?
A: The media portrayal of mothers is pretty complex because a lot of times the media does utilize "women as mom" as a really strong character in their stories -- the one image is supermom, and she has to do everything. And the other image is that she's really stressed and frazzled and can't do anything. Both images turn up a lot in the media. Working Mother magazine is really dedicated to showing the real mom who's just making it happen but in the media you've got the pedestal and the pillory. Because the middle ground isn't as interesting to the news media. For the most part, yes, working mothers are stressed out, and take on too much. But basically the story about working mothers is 'yes, we're the majority, we're okay, we're doing it, we're solving our problems, and here's how we do it.' And that's just not a grabber on the evening news.
You can read the rest of the interview at the Families and Work Institute's blog