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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Grobman

Maternal Bias: Brazil V. United States

Laura had had a stellar career in a Brazilian financial services company. She was recognized by senior leadership and always put forward for new roles and challenges. Until she reached her early thirties and got married. Suddenly she started getting questions about her “future plans” (meaning: when was she going to have kids?) and receiving excuses about why she wasn’t put forward for promotion. After 12 years in the company, she felt stagnated and decided to leave. She got hired by a fin-tech company into a bigger role with a higher salary. She since had a baby and is currently a successful executive who shares parenting responsibilities with her husband.

Elisa was a competent analyst, always highly-rated in her performance reviews and well-liked by peers. When she had her daughter, she was told by her manager that as a mother she was not going to be considered for promotion, because now “her priorities must have changed.”

It was the first time that she realized that she needed to take her career matters into her own hands. She left the company after 10 years and went to a smaller competitor, where she quickly started rising up the ranks with the expertise and strategic view she brought in.

Monica was fired on the day she returned from her maternity leave. The company was going through cost-cutting and in her absence, her position was eliminated. The economy was in a recession so it took her a while to find another job and she had to take a pay cut.

Laura, Elisa and Monica are fictional names of real women who faced very common situations in the Brazilian job market. Brazilian research institution and think-tank, Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), released a research paper looking at the career trajectory of 200 thousand working mothers and found out that 50% of them left their jobs within two years of having a baby and in the majority of cases, by the employer’s initiative.

Pregnancy discrimination in Brazil is illegal but these practices are socially accepted and in some companies are standard protocol. Everyone knows that this happens, shrugs their shoulders when and if pressed too hard about it brings an example of that one woman they knew who used her pregnancy to avoid working. It is hard to change a practice when it is normalized by a large part of society.

What About The United States?

In the USA, pregnancy discrimination is not rare (especially for blue-collar workers), but there are structural efforts to eradicate it. The court system enforces infringements on a regular basis. There’s training about it, reporting mechanisms and lawyers specialized in handling these kinds of situations.

It doesn’t mean, however, that people have let go of their assumptions about mothers’ competence or commitment, the so-called Maternal Bias.

While in Brazil it’s virtually the norm to grill women in child-bearing years about their intentions and commitments, in the United States most managers know how to mask their questions and assumptions.

The intention is not always negative. Often, well-meaning managers want to “protect” their new mom employees from extended responsibilities and stress by reducing their workload or taking them away from the promotion list. The consequences, however, can be disastrous for women’s career growth.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I don’t have a magic wand that will eliminate bias but here are some things that managers could do better when managing mothers or mothers-to-be:

  1. Don’t make assumptions based on your personal life. Many men in top roles have stay-at-home wives, who had given up their careers to dedicate their time to family. Prioritizing childcare over a career is a personal choice and not a general practice. If your spouse, mother or even past employee made this choice, it doesn’t mean that your employee has the same preferences. She might be a single mother, living in a dual-career household or the main breadwinner with a stay-at-home partner. Don’t assume you know mothers’ future goals and ambitions simply because they have children. Ask them instead.

  2. Be proactive about offering opportunities for professional growth. Maternal bias works both ways. Some mothers may be afraid to ask for new opportunities or assume that they won’t get them. They often feel guilty about taking the time off during maternity leave and work extra hard to compensate for the time lost. They also get constant mixed messages from society about where their priorities should lie. Sometimes, all they need is the extra confidence boost to show them that you see them as a valuable employee and believe in their potential for growth.

  3. Think long term. For many mothers (and fathers), the first few months are extremely difficult. They have to learn a whole new set of skills, their routine is completely disrupted, they suffer from sleep deprivation and also need to figure out childcare. It’s easy to dismiss an employee as uncommitted. But if she has always been a high performer, give her some time to breathe. Offer short term flexibility to work from home or on a reduced schedule. It will pay off handsomely in the long run. She will come back much more motivated, committed and grateful for the opportunity.

What Should Working Moms Do In The Meantime?

While managers continue to evolve, I advise career-oriented mothers to proactively communicate interest in new opportunities and career growth and to not leave room for their bosses to make assumptions in the absence of information.

If things get tough, manage the short term (negotiate more flexibility, get help at home, seek advice from those who have been there, consider therapy, etc.), but think about the long term. While people may try to assign less important work to you, protect your career prospects. Think about how to spend the time you have at work more strategically in terms of who you work for and what kind of projects you take on.

This article was originally published in my column in Forbes Careers.

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