Motherhood, Marriage, and the Challenge of Early Careers


Today, I have the honor of handing the post reins over to Dr. Anna Gibson. Dr. Gibson holds a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology. She is currently completing her postdoctoral fellowship with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Center for Organization Development, where she works as an organization development consultant to executive leaders and teams across the VA. She shares her unique perspective of being a women re-entering the workforce as an early career professional combined with her expertise in leadership and organizational development.

As a recent doctoral graduate and a woman entering the workforce again for a second career, I have been troubled by a trend I have noticed that women of my stage of life seem to experience frequently. In short, it seems to come to this: colleagues’ perceptions of a woman who is in the midst of normal, but significant, life changes (marriage and children, anyone?) seem to impact the degree to which she is successful and can advance in her career.

A few years ago, I went to visit a few of my closest college friends shortly after two of them -- Mandy and Jack -- had their first child together. Another friend, Liza, had recently graduated with a doctorate in physical therapy, was working in a prestigious university teaching hospital, had recently gotten married, and was trying to get pregnant. I was in the midst of my graduate training in clinical psychology trying to navigate a glitchy love life. All of us had taken diverging paths in life, but as Mandy, Liza, and I sat around together with Jack’s mother and the new baby boy (Jack was out with Liza’s husband picking up lunch for us all), we struck up a conversation about women in the workplace.

Mandy, who was breastfeeding at the time, told us she had recently been reading up on legislature that requires workplaces to have a private space for pumping, and that she had had difficulty securing an area at her job to do so. She mentioned offhandedly that this struggle had caused disruption to her work productivity, satisfaction, and her working relationships. In response, Jack’s mom reflected on how times had changed since she had had children, and how the world is much more understanding now of the needs of working mothers. Liza and I listened quietly and nodded along with both of them, unsure whether (as non-mothers) we had anything useful to contribute. In that moment of confusion -- as to whether I was “allowed” to have an opinion about the topic -- I was struck full force by the complexities that working women face across important life transitions and how tricky it really is to navigate the balance of work and personal life.

There is no shortage of research on the gender gap in the workplace. What all of the research essentially boils down to is that gendered bias, marginalization, discrimination and prejudice are unfortunately alive and thriving -- and that it sometimes shows up in unexpected places, like how a woman sees herself and what abilities and skills she believes she brings to the table. And not surprisingly, perceptions of her -- her own as well as others’ -- have an impact on how well she actually does.

The Rosenthal Effect (aka “The Pygmalion Effect,” for the Greek mythology and theater buffs out there) tells us that the expectations of another person’s performance actually affect the person’s performance. So if your manager expects you to do a great job on an assignment, you’re more likely to actually do a great job on it. And it can happen both ways, too -- if your manager expects you to fail miserably, you may just prove him or her right by failing miserably. This is especially troubling to me when considering women who are beginning professional careers because, given what we know about the gender gap and gender bias in the workplace, it means there is much less room for error, and it especially means the first impressions matter

I watched the Rosenthal Effect play out with a married, female, first-year graduate student I mentored recently. One day we discussed some family challenges she was having with her children that were impacting her academic work, and I asked her if she had gotten any support from university faculty. In response, she told me that she had been cautious about choosing to whom she disclosed her identity as a mother. When I asked her why, she told me she had read research that women are perceived to be less competent when others learn that she has children. Sadly, I have also found support for this research she cited. And worse, it is not just limited to perceptions of mothers in the workplace -- it is a prejudice that also extends to marital status, certain clothing choicesdemonstrations of warmth, and sexual orientation, among other things

Unfortunately, the Rosenthal Effect had a direct impact on this student. It seemed almost perfectly correlational (although admittedly, this is personal hindsight perspective): As the student disclosed her marital and motherhood status to more people, I heard an increasing number of concerns expressed about her clinical competence. Although I never had a chance to see her clinical work in action, my suspicion is that the concerns were based primarily in bias and prejudice. 

Now, an important corollary to this student’s story: Since the Rosenthal Effect would say that the expectations of this woman’s performance likely impacted her performance, it would be easy to imagine that she started drawing some conclusions about her own incompetence once she started having performance problems. And this is indeed what happened -- she started questioning her own ability to do the work and doubting the decision she made to go to graduate school in the first place. We can imagine how in situations like this, it’s easier for a woman to throw her hands in the air and back away -- as the reasoning could easily go, “If I’m not performing well, I must be no good at this.” When she backs away from her career, it’s a loss not just for her, but for the system from which she’s backing down. And so the cycle continues.

So what’s a woman to do with this conundrum -- truly? Are we doomed from the outset? ...Not quite. It turns out there’s a lot to do, but most, if not all, of the options are part of a much bigger and challenging social task, because this is a systemic issue. 

If expectations affect performance, it would be reasonable to assume that changing expectations could change performance. Towards that end, consider confronting others’ incorrect assumptions about and biases towards you and other marginalized groups. We all have biases and prejudicial attitudes in one form or another (and sometimes they’re even self-directed); but when we become better aware of our own biases and attitudes -- and especially the ones that are unpleasant for us to acknowledge -- the easier it becomes to manage them and the less damaging their impact overall. 

Towards that end, consider the following:

  • Check in with your own biases and assumptions and encourage others to do the same (Harvard University’s “Project Implicit” is a good place to start --, and have a good rationale for why it’s a good idea.

  • Know the research, know your rights, and speak up when incorrect assumptions are made about you. Women have been socialized to do all kinds of things that are helpful in many situations but damaging in others, so checking in with yourself to ensure you’re not unintentionally sabotaging yourself can be a great place to start. How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith is a great primer on the topic.

  • Remember that your performance, failures, and successes are not solely a reflection of you --there are many other factors outside of you that are at work, some of which are more insidious and damaging to you than others. It’s important, though, amidst all of those competing forces to remember that you are not broken. The more you and others have good expectations of how you will perform, the more likely you are to kick ass!


This was originally published in Psychology Today online on June 30, 2019. Copyright @2019 by Mira Brancu / Brancu & Associates, all rights reserved.