“The Performance of a Mother” by Dr. Catherine Owney

My daughter turned one last month. This milestone in our lives provided me with an opportunity to pause and reflect over the past year.  Put into perspective it was probably the most challenging, yet rewarding year of my life. A big part of the difficulty was not because I struggled with being a mother or the many sleepless nights; it was because I felt constant pressure to prove that I could still be a competent professional, even after becoming a mother. I think this pressure came from previous experiences when colleagues would question the competency or dedication of mothers with whom we worked.  I never realized how damaging this could be until I thought people may do it to me.  In reflecting on this, I also realized that I never heard people question how becoming a father may change someone’s performance at work, only mothers.  To be fair, I am sure there are mothers (and fathers) who put their children and families before their jobs and it does negatively impact their performance.  However, there are plenty of other parents that do a great job balancing these roles and I would like to think this is something I have done well over the past year.

But this is not about me– this is about our tendency to judge a woman’s performance negatively because she is a mother or positively despite her being a mother. Positive or negative, I believe a woman’s work performance should be assessed on how she does her job, not in relation to a role, albeit a major one, that she has outside of work. Every person (hopefully) has people or activities outside of work that are important to them. Someone may be an avid volunteer, collector, student, sibling, child, the list can go one and on. However, it is rare to hear someone judge another person’s work performance in relation to their roles outside of work until it comes to motherhood.  If a woman becomes a biological mother, it is eventually obvious to everyone around her that she is pregnant. It is at this point that the judgment and differential treatment, positive or negative, begins. If a pregnant woman is liked and respected by her colleagues, she is given a pass and people offer to do things for her or tell her she should not do things (like work longer hours that are typical in our field).  If a pregnant woman is not seen as a hard worker or competent by colleagues, her pregnancy and impending maternity leave becomes a source of frustration for her co-workers.  Neither of these treatments are fair. The next time the fact that a colleague is a mother enters your mind in relation to her performance, consider if you would do the same if that person is a father, sibling, collector, volunteer, or any other role that someone could have outside of work.

Dr. Catherine Owney is Assistant Director of Residential Services at Northwestern University.


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