The road to well-paid work, equal opportunities, and workplace respect for women has been paved by countless struggles. Today, while women are achieving success in many ways, one area remains in dire need of equalization: the treatment of parents versus non-parents.
However, this remains a bigger struggle for working mothers as opposed to working fathers. Just 100 years ago, women were ruled “not people,” and refused the right to the Law Society entrance exams.
After two world wars, decades of relentless suffrage, glacial policy changes, game-changing birth control innovations, and countless setbacks, it was by the 1970s that over 50% of Western women were engaged in continuous paid work—compared to virtually all men and dads.
The road for working parents (and in particular mothers) remains uphill, with unfair treatment and unjustified perceptions consistently blocking their ambitions.
We’re going to take a look at how the treatment of working parents has changed over the years and, crucially, what steps are yet to be taken.
Provisions for Working Parents
Childcare & Nurseries
The argument for Federal, state, or local childcare first hit the headlines in the 1970s. Back then—despite more women actively working than ever before—government decision makers still saw “childcare [as] the mother’s domain.” If a mother was to work, it was her choice to put her familial responsibilities to one side.
Or as one local health official put it: “If the career mother wishes to park out her child for a substantial proportion of the day… she should at least be asked to pay the full cost, and should not expect the state or the municipality to subsidize her.”
Thankfully, the women of the 1970s and 80s didn’t take this argument lying down. Feminists, trade unions, and childcare experts were adamant that nurseries should not only be a social priority for ending sex discrimination and unequal opportunities, but also for the greater economic prosperity of the nation.
While some childcare policies were introduced and a great number of daycares have since opened across the country, it remains woefully underfunded. The result is a childcare system that is wildly unaffordable for all but the highest percentile of earners in the US.
On paper, moms can now have it all: full-time careers and childcare during those working hours. But in reality, many mothers are forced to choose between working to pay for childcare, or dropping their work entirely—with very little economic difference between the two scenarios.
Today, childcare remains one of the great unfulfilled promises of modern America.
Job Security and Opportunities
Having children remains statistically the worst career decision a woman can make.
Not only is there an epidemic of casual stigma against the commitment of “attention-divided” moms, but childless women are 8.2 times more likely to be recommended for a promotion than mothers.
The fear of being removed—directly or indirectly—from their responsibilities is one of the biggest fears that new moms have before giving birth: some 35% of working parents who did not take a career break, but would have liked to, cited a fear of losing their job.
While it is illegal to discriminate against parents in this way, a $14 million settlement in the 1980s shows it was happening then, and with half as many moms still getting promoted as dads today, it’s clearly still a prevalent and frightening problem today.
Expectations on Working Moms and Dads
Time Off Work for Birth or Adoption
When the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law in 1994, it seemed like a huge step forward: up to 12 weeks a year of leave in order to care for a new child, adopted or born!
But it was also unpaid, and many parents (and overwhelmingly fathers) were discouraged from leveraging the policy. The loss of wages makes it impossible for most low-income families to utilize this time off and barely half of working parents actually qualify in the first place.
In terms of parental leave, the US is tragically behind almost all of the developed world. Despite more than 80% of Americans backing paid parental leave, financial pressure regularly forces parents to return to work after barely a few weeks with their child. And without grandparents or strong neighborhood support, they’ll be paying through the nose for childcare too.
Work Commitment—Or the Lack Thereof
One of the biggest problems faced by working moms (and more recently, dads) is the total disregard for their ambition, competence, and loyalty to the job—a problem that’s festered since women first joined the labor force en masse more than 60 years ago.
To this day, mothers are considered 12% less committed to work than non-mothers. This perception masks a deeper problem that many employers consider their employees’ attention and focus to be their own property.
The idea that we all have “other things” to focus on, away from work, should not be controversial—and yet many white collar careers penalize “time off” and glorify burning the midnight oil (think law or finance workers). Yet parents simply cannot do this without full-time childcare or being forced to neglect their kids.
But the problem extends far beyond the upper middle class and, predictably, affects minorities more. One in two women of color report that their commitment or competence was questioned after they had kids.
Discrimination: The Law vs Reality
Back in the 1980s, 30% of Americans said women should return to their “traditional roles” in society. In 2009, still 19% believed that women should return to their traditional roles as domestic wives and non-workers. Only 15% strongly agreed that both spouses should contribute to the household income.
While there is extensive legal protection for moms and parents, does it actually make a difference?
It is sex discrimination to deny a father’s request for paternity leave (and other requests related to child-rearing), and yet the pressure applied to fathers to remain at work remains extremely high. Threats of hindered career progression are widespread.
But many working parents are fighting back. According to data collected by the Center for WorkLife Law, in the United States, roughly two-thirds of plaintiffs who sue in federal court on the basis of family responsibilities discrimination win at trial—twice the success rate of more general employment discrimination cases.
In 2007, a female delivery driver won $2.3 million after her employer, Bimbo Bakeries, decided her pregnancy made her unqualified to do her job and refused to find her another position within the company—an utterly baseless decision.
This type of discrimination has been illegal since 1984—and yet it remains rife across most industries. With most people unable to wage legal battle against their employers, it’s easy to see how such discrimination could remain unchecked.
What Does the Future Hold for Parents at Work?
Over the past several decades, the general treatment of working parents (and the broad acceptance that careers and parenting can coexist) has improved, but remains far from perfect.
Childcare is available and widely utilized, but only by those who can afford it. The lack of government funded childcare hits minorities, low-earners, and single parents extremely hard. Parents are still perceived to be “less committed” at work, but it’s trending in the right direction. The idea that workers are allowed lives outside of work has gained traction since the COVID-19 lockdowns.
If we look at the marginalization of working mums 60 years ago, most of us are appalled. And yet the unaffected majority (most men and some “career women” of that era) couldn’t see it happening. Today, we have a responsibility to be more aware than previous generations and realize that there is much work to be done.
The treatment of working parents isn’t going to transform overnight. But if this upwards trajectory continues, and those most desperate for help start to receive it, then perhaps for the next generation the transformation will be complete.
From your perspective, does your organization treat parents and child-free workers equally? What workplace benefits would you like to see so that parents can have equally strong, successful careers as non-parents? Sogolytics can help understand how parents are really treated in your organization, and uncover what changes you can make to improve their parental and workplace lives.