Hiding Motherhood: on the Maternal Wall Bias in Architecture

Research shows that after returning to the office mothers often experience sidelining, coupled with the overall assumption that they are less committed to their jobs. There is no wonder then that this phenomenon, coined as 'secret parenting' by economist Emily Oster, is becoming an almost spontaneous attitude women recur to in an attempt to preseve their professional image.

One Fine Day, 1996. [DVD] Michael Hoffman, US: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The 1996 film 'One Fine Day', portrays Melanie Parker, an architect and single mom, struggling to meander through her day while juggling career and parenthood. Leaving aside the unrealistic representation of the architectural office culture, one aspect that drew my attention was the heroine's almost instinctive reaction to hide the fact that the little boy roaming around the office was, in reality, her son.

A 2014 paper in Gender, Work & Organization (Giving Up: How Gendered Organizational Cultures Push Mothers Out), highlights the pressures of the office culture when women sometimes hide their pregnancies well into their third semester, conceal the fact that they have small children or even “pretended their children’s interests were of small importance to them.”

In a long-hours office culture such as that of architecture where the expectations are high, where the permeability of time boundaries is assumed and where the amount of invested overtime is a reason to boast about over the coffee break, it is no surprise that women find it difficult to keep up. An AJ article written by Simon Aldous casts the spotlight on the illegal perpetuation of these conditions, revealing “employers are forcing staff to opt out of the EU Working Time Directive, which enforces an average 48-hour working week.” Leaving aside the unsustainable effects overworking has on the mental well-being of employees regardless of their gender, the bypassing of this directive could also lead to ‘further entrenching the profession’s male domination’. Under these circumstances, the adverse effects on the ability of women to progress in their architectural career become clear, even more so with the 2020 pandemic that puts further pressure on women as the primary caregivers for their children. The long-hour culture becomes a gender equity issue and breaking this bad cycle is critical if we aim to promote equal opportunities while becoming inclusive of those who choose to have children.

With few specifically tailored strategies designed to help re-integrate the returning parent, employers often propose part-time work as a win-win solution. In most cases, however, women find themselves trying to cram more work in fewer hours of allotted time.

Drawing from personal experience, this left me wondering: is the opportunity of working fewer hours per week really a viable form of support for mothers? Research shows that after returning to the office mothers often experience sidelining and demotions, coupled with the overall assumption that they are less committed to their jobs. There is no wonder then that this phenomenon, coined as ‘secret parenting’ by economist Emily Oster, is becoming an almost spontaneous form of tailoring our image to suit the work environment we operate within.

So why would people feel forced to choose a side to demonstrate their commitment to their profession, by minimizing the proportion parenthood actually occupies in their lives? Why pretend children are ‘of little importance’/ a negligible factor to prove they are invested in their work? Why are we scared to acknowledge our child-care obligations openly to our employers?

Hiding parenthood as the moment that completely re-defines not only our schedules but also our general approach and vision of life and therefore work, means we are providing our employers with a false image and limiting our own opportunities to design and access a more flexible working model within the office.

In a nutshell, if we want to see change, mothers and fathers alike should become transparent about the nature of their challenges, about the pressures they face. As she confronts and embraces the reality of motherhood in one of the film’s key scenes, Melanie Parker confronts both her boss and client in the meeting she chose to attend over her son’s soccer game: “Gentlemen, if you're smart, you'll want me as much for my dedication and ability as for the fact that I am going to ditch you right now and I am going to run like hell across town so that my kid knows that what matters to me most is him.” The client looks at her boss and says: “I like her”. Who knows, maybe this is the response we could also trigger if we decide to come clean about who we really are.

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