The mommy track is alive and well, unfortunately, with outdated cultural expectations and biases still in place. But women have more options and protections in place than ever before, which should make all forms of penalizing working mothers something our daughters will never experience.
What is the mommy track?
It should be easy to define mommy track, but there are nuances and truths not brought to light with the standard definition. According to Oxford Languages, the mommy track is a “career path for women who opt to sacrifice promotions and pay raises in order to devote more time to raising their children.” Note that troublesome word “opt.”
A better and more realistic definition is from Merriam-Webster, which defines the mommy track as “a career path that allows a mother flexible or reduced work hours but tends to slow or block advancement.”
Why does the mommy track exist?
Cultural attitudes and societal beliefs are behind the mommy track, writes Michelle Corinaldi, former editor-in-chief at Philologia Undergraduate Research Journal. Motherhood is associated with reduced devotion to work and more to family. The two (good mother and ideal worker) are incompatible.
The conscious and unconscious presumptions made about women and motherhood in the workplace “lead to biases about a woman’s commitment to her occupation and the workplace as a whole,” Corinaldi explains. Motherhood penalties can be severe, including “immediate financial repercussions [and] distant career stagnation.”
And the penalties can start before you’re even hired. Corinaldi points to one study that found “employed mothers had a lower recommended starting salary and suffered a ‘per-child wage penalty’ of approximately 5% on average.”
Sociologist Jessica Calarco says working mothers blame themselves for being on the mommy track instead of the government and social support systems that have failed them. She adds that “women should, in many cases, be blaming their own spouses or partners for prioritizing their own careers, for not doing enough at home.”
The reason women take on the blame, explains Calarco, is that “most of us aren’t taught to use our sociological imaginations. We’re not taught to think about social problems as structural problems. We’re not taught to see the forces that operate beyond our control—forces like capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.”
“Instead,” Calarco says, “we—especially women and people from other systematically marginalized groups—are taught to self-help-book our way out of structural problems.”
What are the signs you’re on the mommy track?
If you notice that you’re suddenly being held back at work, you may have been placed on the mommy track. It usually starts once you’ve announced your pregnancy and maternity leave date and is well in place upon your return.
You may see projects you usually handle aren’t coming your way or that you’re being passed over for expected promotions or raises. If you feel that you’re not being taken seriously anymore or being edged out of your job, it could be that you’ve been placed on the mommy track.
What can you do about it?
If President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, now winding its way through Congress, is passed, child tax credits and better paid family leave should help working mothers. They’ll get more time and better paid leave, and universal access to high-quality, free preschool.
When extended, paid parental leave policies are baked into the corporate culture as something positive, it will allow parents to take turns staying at home with their children, and not have to try to decide between being a good parent and having a meaningful career.
Still, that’s in the future for most of us.
If you’re proactive, you may be able to stop the mommy tracking from happening at all, or be able to derail the process if you’re already being mommy tracked.
At the outset, be very clear when arranging your maternity leave about what you expect upon your return. Have a meeting with your manager to outline your career path and, more specifically, how you will integrate with ongoing projects and work once you’re back.
Get in the weeds, as much as you can: Talk about flex time and working from home. If you plan to breastfeed, you’ll need a place to pump when you’re at the office. Not only does federal law require most employers with over 50 employees to give you time to do that (for one year after your child’s birth), but they must be provided a private place, other than a bathroom, where mothers can do so.
Send your boss an email outlining your understanding of what you agreed to for each point and copy that to HR.
Remember that mommy tracking is a form of discrimination. When you document everything, you can report it, if necessary. That means keeping detailed notes on your job performance over time, from well before your pregnancy, to prove that your work hasn’t suffered.
If you are unable to resolve problems internally with your supervisor and then with HR, you can address any mommy tracking incidents by filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
And the EEOC will take action. Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the EEOC's Miami District Office, puts it this way: “Becoming pregnant should not derail a woman’s career. Although maternity leave is a comparatively small amount of time in a woman’s overall career span, many companies still take a short-sighted approach, failing to value the contributions women bring to the workplace.”
How can women avoid the mommy track?
See what kind of support you have around you, and use it. Jane Fraser, CEO at Citi, a global bank, worked part-time when her children were young but kept her eye on her long-term career goals. When the kids were a little older, her husband quit his job to stay home, and she went back to work full time.
Certainly, having your partner stay home with the kids is not something most working mothers can expect—unlike working dads. According to one study, “7 in 10 men who have enough income to put their households in the top 1% of earners have stay-at-home spouses.”
There are companies that are supportive, though, so if you’re looking for a job, search for those work environments in which mommy tracking is unlikely to happen. Lauren McKinnon, founder and CEO of communication agency Project Mockingbird, says some of the features you would want to see other than work flexibility include:
Unlimited paid time off in addition to unlimited maternity leave. That means time to take your child to the doctor, to pick them up from daycare, to attend ballet recitals, and so on.
Life moment bonuses. The birth of a child is one such moment, and by acknowledging special times like this, employers “show employees they are valued as a whole person.”
Some women go so far as to create their own workplace, like lawyer Emily Cooper. In a discussion about mommy tracking on LinkedIn, Cooper wrote: “As a Black woman and a mom, I can say that I HAD to stay in the workforce to support my family. I left the big law firm life to create my own small firm so that I could dictate my own destiny and financial success.”