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Written by Mary Olivella, Joan Blades, and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner

Every once in a while a word or phrase is introduced into the lexicon that sheds light on a widespread practice which hasn’t yet entered the national consciousness. These phrases take hold because we need them.

A few days ago, the New York Times listed a sampling of 2007’s newly coined buzzwords – words “that endured long enough to find a place in the national conversation.” Maternal Profiling was one of these. The New York Times defined it as:

“Employment discrimination against a woman who has, or will have, children. The term has been popularized by members of MomsRising, an advocacy group promoting the rights of mothers in the workplace.”

Credit is due to Cooper Monroe from MomsRising.org who coined the phrase to describe the profound bias mothers face in the workplace. The phrase has struck a cord at a broader level for all mothers who feel pegged and discriminated against whether in the labor force or as stay-at-home moms.

Maternal profiling is a term being used by the more than 140,000 (and growing) MomsRising.org activists who are bringing the concept into the public consciousness.

Although seldom discussed until fairly recently, maternal profiling is a significant and shared problem which negatively impacts vast numbers of women, particularly since a full 82% of American women become mothers by the time they are 44 years old.

The workplace impacts of maternal profiling are jaw dropping, especially given that three-quarters of American mothers are now in the workforce. In fact, the American Journal of Sociology recently reported a study which found that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired than non-mothers with equal resumes and job experiences.

Mothers also face steep wage hits and unequal wages for equal work. One study found that women without children make 90 cents to a man’s dollar, but women with children make only 73 cents to a man’s dollar. And single mothers make about 60 cents to a man’s dollar.

Even in well-paid positions, mothers face discrimination. A Cornell University study found that mothers were offered $11,000 less in starting pay than non-mothers with the same resumes and job experience, while fathers were offered $6,000 more in starting pay.

That same study also found that mothers were held to harsher work standards than non-mothers and were taken off the management track for reasons that were not justifiable when compared to the behavior of other workers.

The dirty little secret of the American workplace is that maternal profiling is alive and well and has been for a very long time. We just didn’t have words to label this form of discrimination.

The repercussions of this discrimination are far reaching and they are intricately linked with issues of poverty, a deficit of women in leadership positions, and the future of our country’s children.

A quarter of American families with children under six are living in poverty. Having a baby has been documented as a leading cause of “poverty spells” in our country -- a time when income dips below what is needed for basic living expenses such as food and rent.

Right now, the vast majority of workplaces are still structured from the era when it was assumed that there was a wife at home full-time with the children--even though this has never been the case for many low-income families. The majority of women, of mothers, are in the workplace to stay now—and it increasingly takes two incomes to support a family.

The good news is that we know how to narrow these wage gaps and how to stop maternal profiling. Countries with family-friendly policies (such as paid family leave after the birth of a child and subsidized childcare) don’t have the same degree of maternal wage hits as we do here.

But we have work to do. It’s time to catch up. The United States lags far behind other countries when it comes to supporting families. For instance, Harvard researchers studied over 170 countries and found that the United States was one of only four nations without some form of national paid leave for new mothers. (The others were Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.)

Unfortunately, so far only one state in our nation, California, provides for paid parental leave though Washington State will follow soon. The lack of paid family leave often causes parents to either quit much-needed jobs to care for their newborn (and thus lose their job-linked healthcare coverage), or else the financial hardship of living without paid leave drives women back to work earlier than they would have chosen. Yet when parents return to work, they face a chaotic and costly childcare system where the cost of care for two children can easily be upwards of $20,000 per year.

Then there’s the ever present question of what to do if you, or your child, gets sick. The absence of policies supporting a minimum number of paid sick days can force parents to choose between leaving a sick child at home alone, or staying home to care for their child and consequently losing income or possibly being fired. And, here too we lag behind other nations. Looking at the twenty countries with the top economies in the world, the United States is the only one that does not have a national minimum standard for paid sick days.

Given that we lag behind on family-friendly programs, it is not surprising that we also lag behind on the health of our children. Although we spend more per capita than any other country on healthcare, the United States is ranked a low 37th out of all the nations in respect to childhood mortality. International studies have shown that paid family leave policies decrease infant mortality by an impressive 25%.

All of the above is compounded by the fact that one in eight American children doesn’t have any health care coverage at all. (This is yet another area where we lag behind: The United States is the only industrialized nation which doesn’t have some form of universal health coverage).

It’s easy to see how having a baby in a nation without support for families could cause a downward financial spiral that lasts a lifetime—and how a lifetime of maternal discrimination can create a vicious cycle for the next generation.

We can solve these problems. We can end maternal profiling. American mothers and families are struggling, not because of an epidemic of personal failings, but because we need changes in our national policies, our workplaces, and our culture to reflect that women are in the workplace to stay and that the majority of them have children.

Women across the socioeconomic spectrum, and across the diverse backgrounds of all American families, are negatively impacted by maternal profiling. They (and many men) are becoming progressively more vocal about the need for our country to create family-friendly policies.

Another related phrase, “family responsibilities discrimination,” has been popularized by legal scholars such as Joan Williams to describe discrimination against employees who have care giving responsibilities. The Center for WorkLife Law has seen a 400% increase is such cases filed during 1996-2005 over the previous decade.

MomsRising.org was launched in 2006 to offer mothers and others an opportunity to collect and amplify our voices in order to bring about a cultural shift and policy changes in how our country treats mothers.

We can take the next step towards gender equity by ending maternal discrimination and by building a family-friendly America where having children does not create economic disparities for women. Just as the term sexual harassment transformed American workplaces, maternal profiling can contribute to creating workplaces that do not discriminate against mothers and other caregivers.

Maternal profiling – it’s as bad as it sounds. Let’s get rid of it.


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