The corporate ideals driving ‘secret parenting’

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Many parents downplay caring responsibilities at work to show commitment. Covid-19 has exposed the challenges that parents face – but will it change anything?

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Six months after my daughter was born, I was back in the office, bleary eyed but eager to prove myself in a new position. A few weeks later, when I needed a few days off because of chickenpox at her day-care, I dreaded having to tell my team. Despite supportive colleagues, I felt intense pressure to act like nothing had changed. 

Before, the job had always come first, something that had been key to getting ahead. Back at work as a mother, I was stressed because I couldn’t control my time, worried I now seemed more unreliable and anxious about the next time this might happen. I barely mentioned my daughter in the office; I would never have included an anecdote like this in my writing at that time. 

Three years on, I realise it’s important to do so because this stress isn’t unique to me. Many people face the same pressure, because living up to workplace ideals is often not compatible with caring responsibilities, children or otherwise. This harms caregivers, who are statistically more likely to be women. Many of us respond by downplaying these responsibilities or convincing colleagues we can do just as much overtime as before, because we know that if we don’t, we risk falling victim to the numerous biases that hold mothers back. 

Welcome to the world of “secret parenting”. Economist Emily Oster coined this relatable phrase in a 2019 article in which she urged parents to “come clean” about the nature of their lives. And while the pandemic – and our abrupt shift to home working – has forced many of our hands, it’s not clear whether unveiling the responsibilities we have outside the office will bring meaningful change.   

Gender perceptions and workplace culture 

Secret parenting can start as early as pregnancy. Research shows that some women hide their pregnancies, especially in roles in which they feel they have to compete with men and don’t want to reveal anything that might “get in the way” of work. Working women often feel the need to go “above and beyond” normal standards during pregnancy, another study showed, as well as hide any sickness for fear of appearing unreliable.   

It continues after birth. Women report wanting to hide their breastfeeding at work because it is taboo, and doing so is such an obvious gendered difference that highlights their new status as mothers. There are plenty of anecdotes about women feeling forced to prove they can still work overtime and offering to work even when their children are ill as well as those who purposely don’t share photos of their children or talk about them at all.

The evidence tells us that motherhood is one of the major sources of weakness in career trajectories - Shireen Kanji

That women feel the need to behave this way is no surprise. Mothers have long been seen as less committed and less competent in a work environment. They are passed over for promotions with greater frequency than fathers, and are less likely to be hired than non-mothers. When flexibility is available, those who use it face bias and are more likely to be pigeon-holed into roles with less responsibility. We know the gender pay gap widens after childbirth; wages of working mothers drop for each child a woman has. “The evidence tells us that motherhood is one of the major sources of weakness in career trajectories,” says Shireen Kanji, professor of work and organisation at Brunel University London. 

Of course, some women change jobs or leave the workforce because of these pressures. When Kanji interviewed women who had left high-profile careers, many gave examples of secret parenting, including taking sick days to avoid telling colleagues their children were ill. Women needing time off to care for children served as a “particularly unwelcome reminder that employees care about their children and by implication not enough about the organisation”, her 2013 study showed. One respondent was told to ask family to watch her child, rather than take a day off. Another, a freelancer working in TV, was told never to mention her children, and felt that doing so affected how much work she got.  

In many companies, the image of the ideal employee is someone who puts work first (Credit: Alamy)

In many companies, the image of the ideal employee is someone who puts work first (Credit: Alamy)

This is because, as sociologists have long pointed out, workplaces are structured around men rather than women, and still have an ingrained image of the “ideal worker”; an employee who always puts work first. “Anything that signals otherwise diminishes you in the eyes of your employers,” says Daniel Carlson of the University of Utah. “This notion that women are going to be distracted is presumed... The whole notion of secret parenting stems from the desire to hide this to save one’s career.” 

This structural issue is in some ways a legacy of beliefs still prevalent in individualistic countries like the US that good fathers provide for the family and good mothers stay at home.  Surveys show these social attitudes still exist: both women and men report that working makes it more difficult to be a good parent. Only a third of respondents in the same Pew Research Center survey thought that working full time was best for mothers, while 21% agreed that women with very young children shouldn’t work for pay at all.  

Then there’s the enduring stereotype that women are more capable in the domestic sphere, men in the office, which despite being dispelled by research still has a significant impact on how we frame paid work and family life. “It’s understandable that women feel this relentless work/family conflict because we’re asking the impossible. Women have entered the paid labour force, but we have not seen the changes in men at home to pick up more of the domestic work,” says sociologist Caitlyn Collins of Washington University in St Louis.

Once caregiving duties are identified and made salient, they are seen as less devoted to the job - Elizabeth Hirsh

These gendered perceptions still heavily influence workplace culture; historic legal cases are as illuminating as they are sobering. In her 2020 analysis of carer discrimination in Canada over 30 years, researcher Elizabeth Hirsh at the University of British Columbia found that while cases in general were on the rise, they played out differently for men and women. Because pregnancy made it harder for women to hide the fact that they were mothers, the workplace disputes they experienced – over job assignments or contract terminations – were often based on presumptions about their commitment. “Once caregiving duties are identified and made salient, they are seen as less devoted to the job,” says Hirsh. Men, however, didn’t have their fatherhood exposed by pregnancy, and generally gave reasons other than parenting to explain requests for flexibility – something that had unexpected consequences in court. Men found it harder than women to win against employers because they had mentioned their caring responsibilities less; they had been caring ‘in secret’ even more than women. 

‘Normalising care work’ 

Right now, as many of us work from home amid Covid-19, parenting is more visible than it’s ever been. The pandemic has blurred lines between family and work, causing unprecedented stress to parents who have been forced to combine jobs and childcare. The juggle has been obvious, with children popping up on work video calls, meetings being rescheduled around them and parents promising speedy work responses – once the kids are in bed. Yet although the pandemic has gone a long way toward normalising something previously hidden, the associated biases against mothers have not gone away.

Covid-19 has blurred boundaries between professional and private lives for many parents (Credit: Alamy)

Covid-19 has blurred boundaries between professional and private lives for many parents (Credit: Alamy)

In fact, childcare being more evident could simply reinforce negative attitudes toward caring responsibilities. The strain of working while parenting could make judgement and discrimination more likely; in the US, the Center for WorkLife Law has found discrimination against caregivers has been increasing. There have also been reports of resentment from workers who don’t have children about perceived special favours for parents. And while reports suggest fathers in some nations are increasing their share of caring work, working mothers have left jobs or reduced their hours in greater numbers than fathers. Experts are worried that the impacts on women from the crisis could erase years of progress on gender equality. 

There is a glimmer of positivity in all this gloom; the pressures that compel parents to downplay caring responsibilities do not happen everywhere. In Sweden, for instance, both parents can take advantage of family-friendly policies without any stigma attached. Collins, who spoke to numerous Swedish mothers for her research, found that family life is openly welcomed as a priority, creating a “culture of support” in which both men and women can be upfront about balancing work and childcare. She cites an intriguing clash of cultures in a case where Swedish employees worked for an Australian firm. When one mother declined a meeting late in the afternoon, her Swedish boss suggested she should hide her reason for doing so, since their Australian CEO would find leaving early for childcare duties unacceptable.

In his research, Carlson has found that it is the combination of two factors that could create real change : making caring responsibilities more public, and passing more of the load onto fathers. “The more we normalise care work and other obligations, especially for fathers, [the more] it starts to diminish the penalties to take on those responsibilities, and certainly lowers gaps and discrimination due to sexism,” he says. In certain circles, “working from home has laid bare that so many of us have family obligations, and people are becoming far more understanding of this”.   

Perhaps that means that one day I will stop disguising the fact that I’m dialling into a video call from outside in the rain because I’m hoping my daughter will take a nap instead of interrupting the meeting. And maybe we will stop cringing each time a company highlights that paid time off will probably largely benefit parents – inadvertently signalling that they cannot put in as much dedicated time as everyone else. Supportive policies are important, but even where leave is available, fathers in particular often don’t take it for fear of being stigmatised. 

Until policies recognise this, bosses set examples and work cultures change their perception of the “ideal worker”, aspects of parenting will likely remain secretive, even if children keep interrupting video calls. We shrug it off and agree that yes, they’re quite cute, masking the stress bubbling away under the surface.

Melissa Hogenboom is the editor of BBC Reel. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter. Her upcoming book, The Motherhood Complex, is out in May 2021.