Though employment litigation has been decreasing overall, one type of lawsuit has been rapidly proliferating over the past decade: cases that involve bias against working mothers and other caregivers.
This type of discrimination has a name: "maternal wall bias."
Historically, mothers have been reluctant to make waves, and women's lack of progress toward the C-suite has been shrugged off as a by-product of personal decisions--a shift in priorities, the fire in the belly extinguished or tamped down. Women fall behind by choice, so the thinking goes. Recent research, however, shows that even when women maintain their professional ambitions, motherhood often triggers strong and blatant workplace bias.
Working mothers have become more likely to sue their employers for discrimination, and juries increasing inclined to award them large settlements if gender bias appears to have played a role in derailing their careers. In the United States roughly two-thirds of plaintiffs who sue in federal court on the basis of family responsibilities discrimination prevail at trial.
Maternal wall bias often feels more like a sledgehammer than a paper cut. One study found that a woman with children was 79% less likely to be hired than one without children.
Most maternal wall cases involve women who wanted to remain in their jobs and on their career paths. They chose to continue working--not to get on the mommy track. Their careers stalled nonetheless.
How to Steer Clear of Bias
As with many managerial challenges, the first step is to create awareness of the problem. The second, to put it plainly, is to cut it out.
American managers know not to blurt out, "This is no job for a woman." When it comes to mothers, though, they may see themselves as delivering tough love rather than discrimination. Many don't understand, for instance, that saying "This is no job for a mother" may create a legal liability.
There's a very easy way to find out whether a new mother wants a promotion that will require longer hours: Ask.
Incorporate lessons on how to avoid maternal wall bias into existing training programs--or offer a new one. Maternal wall bias stems from the ways we think: from old-fashioned beliefs about what makes a good mother (someone who is always available to her children) and a good father (a good provider).
Bottom Line: Organizational leadership shouldn't lose money over something that they can easily avoid. Maternal wall bias is little understood but very much out in the open---which means that plaintiffs in these suits tend to win. Legal liability is worth heading off at the pass, by training employees to avoid this new, and increasing, legal risk.
Source: Harvard Business Review, September 2012