Consider the following scenarios:
1. Joan is on her way to teach her class and runs into her department chair, Ben, who says, “Joan, are your kids sick? I haven’t seen you the past few days.”
Startled, Joan replies, “No! I was attending a conference and presenting a paper on my research….remember?
Ben says, “Oh, yes. I just forgot. Actually, what I wanted to ask you about was whether you could pick up our seminar speaker at the airport at 5 pm this evening?”
Joan hesitantly says, “Oh, I can’t. I had promised to be at my son’s game after school. Perhaps if you had given me more notice…..”
Ben frowns and replies, “Well, I guess I’ll have to do it then. I can see that your family takes precedence.”
Later, Joan confides to one of her coworkers, “He always does that to me…he assumes that I’m not working if I’m not in the office. When I provide a reasonable explanation for my absence, he then “tests” me by asking me to do something that he knows will interfere with my personal responsibilities.”
2. Mike is a new father and has applied for family leave to help his wife care for their newborn. He walks into the coffee break room and sees several of the other faculty members sitting around the conference table.
Robert, a somewhat conservative fellow, says, “Hey, Mike. I hear you’re getting some kind of special “mommy leave” and won’t be able to teach your usual courses this semester. Guess you figure the rest of us will carry your load!”
Mike replies, “I’ll be here part time and teaching only one course. My wife applied for maternity leave, but we chose to share it so that she could return part time to work…she has a new research grant. On the days she works, I stay home with the baby and vice versa. The department arranged for a post-doc, who needs teaching experience, to take my undergraduate course for the semester. I’ll still teach my graduate seminar. Overall, our choice benefits everyone.”
“Well, that’s a pretty sweet deal, “ Robert says, looking knowingly at the onlookers at his table.
“Actually, any employee can apply for family leave…to take care of a newborn, a seriously ill spouse, or an elderly parent. Any of you might need to use it one day.” Mike decides to have his coffee in his office and walks out.
This post is the third in the series about gender bias. One of the most common biases is called “The Maternal Wall”, in which mothers (and men who are non-traditional parents) are judged to be less productive or professional than their childless colleagues.
The scenarios described above are two common situations in which bias of this type can occur. One example involves a woman who is being targeted by her department chair because he thinks her family responsibilities are interfering with her job performance. His comments reveal his prejudice against mothers (or parents, in general). In the second example, the maternal bias is directed at the spouse, who is taking a portion of the maternity leave to care for a newborn. Note that nothing that was said or done in either example qualifies as sexual harassment or sex discrimination.
These hypothetical examples are meant to show how subtle bias can be…either disguised as a concerned question (Are your kids sick?) or teasing (“mommy leave”). Such bias is very difficult to spot immediately. It may take further reflection on what was said or several similar instances before the victim realizes what’s happening.
For more on the Maternal Wall and other gender bias patterns, see the Gender Bias Learning Project.