- The “maternal wall” refers to the bias and decline in career success that female employees often experience when they become pregnant or return to work after parental leave
- Research shows that contrary to common assumptions, ambition is influenced by company culture more than a woman’s desire to have a family
- There are many practical actions leaders can take to reduce the potential for pregnancy bias in the workplace
In January 2017, world champion athlete Serena Williams walked off the court at the Australian Open, having earned her place as the world’s number one tennis player, despite playing the tournament while in her first trimester. Yet, when she stepped onto the court at the 2018 French Open, she was ranked just 451st globally. The reason for Williams’ dramatic descent in the rankings? Her decision to take a year of maternity leave to have her first child.
In some ways, Williams’ experience is specific to the world of tennis, with much of the debate centering around a practice known as ‘seeding’ which protects top players – although, seemingly, not those returning from maternity leave. But away from the court, Williams’ experience reflects a daily reality for working mothers around the world as they encounter the maternal wall. While we would have liked to see her challenge the WTA for discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, we also understand her desire to prove herself on the court. Because that’s what women often feel they need to do: prove their value, their worth, all over again. But this time, with more pressure.
Prue Gilbert is CEO of Grace Papers, a company providing expert advice and programs for pregnant and new parents.