Maternal Wall Bias and The Motherhood Penalty

How bias against mothers impacts women’s career advancement

About 50% of surveyed women report that their colleagues see them as less competent and committed after they have children. This social dynamic is what we call the maternal wall bias and it is the primary reason women do not advance into leadership roles. 

Microlesson Description

This skill-building microlesson illustrates how gender role discrimination toward mothers is a double-edged sword. As a result of the Maternal Wall bias, women are passed over for high-profile assignments and receive less pay and promotions than others when they take maternity leave. On the flip side, women are often criticized if they don’t take a long maternity leave. We offer downloadable exercises to help leaders and teams develop sensitivity to the Maternal Wall bias and the skill to address it at work.

This microlesson is part of the Bias Interrupters program series based on Joan Williams and WorkLife Law's research on effective interventions to mitigate workplace bias. This microlesson series is also available in a full course with downloadable exercises to enable individual or group practice.

Definition of The Maternal Wall Bias: Assumptions that women who are mothers are either uncommitted to their jobs if they take time off to care for their families or cold and uncaring if they don’t.

Key Concepts

  • Provide consistent opportunities and support to women, regardless of maternal status.
  • Don’t assume that mothers are secondary breadwinners or that fathers don’t have caregiving responsibilities.
  • Provide as much flexibility as possible, so that all parents can juggle work and caregiving responsibilities.  
  • Use data and metrics to track performance rather than assumptions.

How to Use this Content:

Use this content as part of your manager and leadership development programs, as part of ERG learning materials, and in the flow of work for hiring team training and before performance reviews. Joan C. Williams’ book, Bias Interrupted, is available now.


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Interested in training your employees with 3-5 minute video lessons that address specific and timely concepts?