Episode 4: The Motherhood Penalty, Part 2: Parenting Discrimination

0:00 / 33:09
August 11, 2020

After pregnancy comes parenthood, and the research shows women, more than male partners, are disproportionately burdened with balancing careers against household and child-rearing duties. Women are also more likely to take time away from the workforce or reduce their hours to do so. In this episode, veteran hospitality worker Tam describes her experience paying her dues and working her way up to management, only to be treated by her employer as if her pregnancy and subsequent single parenthood were one big inconvenience worthy of admonishment. Tam also discusses why she pursued a racial and gender discrimination lawsuit against a second employer, only to feel forced into a $30,000 pay cut—and that was before the Covid-19 challenges.

Due to the pandemic, this interview was recorded by Zoom and/or phone. A transcript is included below. In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine. Contact the show at podcast@inthesetimes.com.



CHANDRA THOMAS WHITFIELD (HOST): Welcome to In The Gap, a podcast about how and why Black women aren’t getting their green. I’m your host, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield. On In The Gap we’ve spoken a lot about the so-called motherhood penalty, as it relates to the gender pay gap in Black women, which often includes pregnancy discrimination. But as we know, after pregnancy comes being a parent, and many Black women say that their employers failed to provide a work environment that supports their ability to fulfill their parental duties—responsibilities that are still disproportionately carried out by women. And Black women, more than any other group, are most likely to be the sole breadwinners of their families.

TAM: The discriminatory part of it is you try to make it as if “Oh well you were late, and because you were constantly late then I just changed your hours because you were late.” Okay well, if I couldn’t make it there at nine, then what made you think I could make it there at 5:45 in the morning. So it was a plot to force me to quit.


WHITFIELD: That’s Tam, our guest today. She knows all about the challenges of balancing motherhood with work. After more than a decade working long erratic hours in the hospitality industry, even winning an award for her efforts, eventually came a big promotion to management at one of the largest and most prominent hotels in the Washington D.C. area. But she said her dream position quickly turned into a nightmare when she returned from maternity leave, unpaid maternity leave I might add, as a single mom to a baby girl.

She says it didn’t take long before she began to feel like all of the hard work she’d put in at the company no longer mattered. She says she was pushed out of one job, only to face a different set of challenges at another. And her story doesn’t end there. Tam joins us now to tell her story, and I’m only using her first name to protect her privacy. Welcome Tam.


TAM: Hi everyone! (laughter)

WHITFIELD: Okay so, well first off, you know, let’s just deal with the immediate issue going on. How has your life been affected with this coronavirus situation?

TAM: Oh well for me, I was actually laid off. And since then I filed for unemployment, but it’s unfortunate because we don’t know when this is going to end for some of us. We don’t know how it’s going to end. We don’t know when we’re going back to our jobs and, you know, how that’s going to affect our home life. So honestly it’s a little scary. The unknown is a little scary—not knowing if you’re going to pay bills, when your next check is going to come, what you’re going to be forced to do, what you might have to do just to keep money flowing, just to keep the cash flowing.

So it’s a little challenging trying to figure out something that unfortunately we, as 9ij.not only Americans, but kind of below-middle-class Americans, how we’re going to figure out how to do things we’ve never had to figure out how to do before. So it’s challenging.


TAM: So we’re just winging it, and it’s super challenging, but you know I’m getting through it at the moment. In another month? I don’t know (laughter), but I’m getting through it at the moment.


WHITFIELD: Well let’s just kind of start from the beginning. So how did you get to the point where you were at this major hotel?

TAM: I have been, as you stated, in the hospitality industry for a very long time, starting off with jobs just as small as Burger King and of course working in various customer service kind of atmospheres: McDonald’s drive-thrus, and then on up into the country clubs, the hotels, being a banquet server, being a restaurant server, various different positions in the banquet industry via a manager-in-training program. And this is how I ended up in the DMV area. And I started my manager-in-training program August of 2013. And then worked my way up to Assistant Director of food and beverage within roughly about four and a half years. So I have done a good bit.

WHITFIELD: You were, you know, a model employee. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?


TAM: You know so I’ve always kind of naturally led. Once I kind of transferred into the professional field and management, that wasn’t a foreign area for me. It was just mainly just me putting everything I learned, both professionally and non professionally, into work. Kind of going into it—various employee of the month nominations, and then getting to, when I started working at this hotel, probably a little bit over a year after I had started working there I was already nominated and had won the manager of the quarter award, which for me was notable. That hotel had boasted a little over 90 managers as it was almost 12,000 rooms, and everybody didn’t win, so I was definitely ecstatic that I was noticed.

WHITFIELD: But you also were a model employee in the sense that you made yourself available and you went the extra mile.

TAM: Absolutely. So pre-child, pre-mom (laughter), the answer was always yes. The answer was always yes. I’m the “not-call-out” the “be there from six” the “yes I’ll work back-to-backs”—and our industry is “I’m leaving late and I’m there the next morning.” You know, hands-on, whatever needed to be done. Even though I was in management, if I needed to serve or to help my servers serve, I did that. Even though I was in management, I needed to help my bartenders bartend, I did that. If I had to be a hostess, if I had to be a banquet server, it never mattered to me what was asked of me, because I would always step up to the plate, and I was always there to lend a hand.


My various managers and peers had approached me and said, “Why don’t you apply for the restaurant manager program position? You already know what you’re doing. You’ve already been doing it. Why don’t you apply?” So at two months pregnant, I interviewed, and accepted the position.

So yeah, I just kind of kept pushing. Kept pushing, kept progressing. You know that never stopped me, until I guess, you know, it stopped me (laughter).

But I didn’t verbally come out to anybody other than my friends and family back home, but otherwise I didn’t tell everybody I was pregnant until about 4 months. I had just maybe started to show. Once that happened and a little after, I think that's just when everything kind of started and when everything just went downhill. Just various things. Like you already know me, you already know what I’m capable of, but I unfortunately had to come to the conclusion that I obviously never looked at in the sense that I was formerly looked at. And that’s mainly because one, I’m a woman, two, I’m a Black woman, and three, because I took it upon myself to rest. And unfortunately, that wasn’t accepted.

You know little things would be said to me, like I found out that three of my colleagues were going to my main manager, to our immediate supervisor, to have a meeting with him solely about me. And the meeting was to be discussed– a few of them discussed with me before they actually went to the meeting, was that, you know, “You don’t work as hard as you used to” or “You’re sitting down a lot more that what you used to” and “I guess you’re not giving 100 percent like you used to.”


And it was hurtful to hear because it was almost as if people not only didn’t care about me, but didn’t care about the fact that I am with child, that I am bearing a child. And that temporarily makes me not-as-effective. Of course I was still there. I still didn’t call out, even if I felt bad. You know, I still was the model employee even with the pregnancy (laughter). Even with morning sickness. Even with my ankles swelling. Even with me being tired. Even with me going through all this. I was still the model employee. Still didn’t call out. Still scheduled my doctor’s appointments before or after work or on my days off. Still didn’t give you any problems, but unfortunately I wasn’t met with the same regard or the wasn’t met with same energy that I gave out, which is unfortunate.


WHITFIELD: I think we’re bringing this up because what you’re describing is what a lot of women in general face, or have expressed facing I should say, but many Black women have felt that their humanity, their experience as a parent, or as a pregnant person, was just basically disregarded in the company putting ahead profits or productivity. And many have complained that they feel that there's been a lack of accommodation to their pregnancy.

So what you’re describing is just kind of leading up to the point of the interview which is parenting discrimination, which many Black women say that they face. It is also something that has been discussed and researched extensively as the belief that Black women have always had to produce and put their parenting or their personal lives to the backburner, whereas several people will say that they didn’t feel that was the experience for other women, particularly white women. And so, you know, what you’re describing is very consistent with what a lot Black women have complained about is that—at the moment that I could not produce on the level that I did previously, it became an issue. And you know you look back at slavery, Black women have always worked.

TAM: Right

WHITFIELD: Black women have always had the highest representation in the workforce of any group of women, and this was regardless of being married or not, or having young children or not, or being pregnant. It was always this pressure to care for the homes and do the domestic duties of other households. And, even as you look at the research, it’s very clear.

So you did get through the pregnancy though, and you had to take your maternity leave—and so this was an unpaid leave on your part—so how did you manage that?


TAM: The company only gave you two weeks, which I held off on towards the end of my pregnancy. But for me, the way I got through it was I actually borrowed against my 401k. I took about 6 grand out of my 401k at that point, because I felt that that was emergency enough for me to borrow against it. And because also that various things were not offered to me.

So the two week pay, also offers what’s called PTO, which I applied for. But unfortunately, the company said that they didn’t see pregnancy as an emergency. So therefore, people that even were willing, and that verbally told me that they would—“I would absolutely have given some of my PTO to you”—unfortunately, was not able to. I just kind of felt like my back was against the wall, so I borrowed from my 401k.


WHITFIELD: So you take this time off to have your baby—and I think we need to emphasize that you are basically a single parent, like you’re doing pretty much everything yourself. So this is obviously contributing to your situation. Again, this is a very consistent experience for many Black women, because unfortunately, the statistics show that we are the least likely to be married, you know, of all racial groups. And so this will add to the pressure of leading a household if you are the breadwinner, the sole breadwinner, of your household. And of course you have to work, and then you have parental duties—

TAM: To be a mom (laughing).

WHITFIELD: Yeah to be a mom. You summed it up: To be a mom. And we all know that is a very challenging, beautiful, but challenging experience.

TAM: Right.

WHITFIELD: This part of the story really kind of gets into the heart of your challenges when you think about, you know, the gender pay gap and also pay discrimination. A lot of people will take that literal, and think it's just about pay or it's just about, you know, not getting the same amount of money. But a lot of this, and I've come across this as I've continued to interview people and research for this podcast, it's not all just about money because you did get raises and things with the management position.

But a lot of it has to do with women disproportionately having to manage parental duties and work, and really those two things not really meshing well together. A lot of Black women have felt like that a lot of their issues have to do with lack of consideration for their lives outside of work. What became your issue at that point, once you got back?


TAM: Once I got back, and just to build up to that point, my supervisor and I, or my immediate supervisor and I, had gotten in place and he called me. He reached out to me to ask me when I was planning on coming back. And I told him when—FMLA allows you 12 weeks, D.C. definitely allowed 16 weeks, so I technically could have been off for four months, legally.

But he called me a little after the two-month mark and asked when I was coming back and had informed me that a colleague was leaving—you know I’m paraphrasing. And they asked me if I would consider coming back a little bit [early]. And again, going back to what we talked about earlier being the model employee, still not even putting me and my child where we should be, which is the head of the list, [I was] like, “Oh, you know, I'll figure it out.” And he and I chat back and forth. And I let him know this is what I found for childcare.

So the childcare provider at first was open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. And so I let him know I would have to work within those confines. Well, you know, of course, you need my help at this point. So you agreed to it. So I actually reported back to work the day after Mother's Day of that year, 2017. And like you said, I was met with great excitement—”Oh, I miss you. Where’s the baby? Show me pictures. How did it go?”—and then unfortunately about a month and a half later I find myself having to put in applications (laughing).

WHITFIELD: (Unintelligible).

TAM: Right, because you don't see me as you used to. And I'd had to put in those applications because, as you said before, work and being a mom no longer meshed. It was no longer, you know, a healthy relationship. So unfortunately, I was put in a position to kind of have to choose. And it was very very stressful.

WHITFIELD: And the real issue for you is really that the hours that they requested that you work did not coincide with your childcare options.

TAM: Right. And again, the discriminatory part of it is you tried to make it as if “Oh well you were late, and because you were constantly late, then I just changed your hours because you were late.” Okay, well, I couldn't make it there at 9, what made you think I could make it there at 5:45 in the morning. So it was a plot to, you know, to force me to quit. And that's basically what he stuck to. And HR supported him, even though I went to HR, I went to his boss, they supported him and he tried to say it was business needs.

But unfortunately, I was asked to come in at 5:45 in the morning with no childcare provider opening early enough for me to meet those standards, unfortunately. So that's when I ended up having to, you know, kind of break my own heart. And that's when I ended up having to, I'd say, about a month and a half/two as I got back to work, I had to send my daughter away from me.

And that was super super hurtful. And my daughter was about four and a half months at the time, and I had to send her back home—and when I say back home this is Georgia. I'm in D.C. and I had to send her back home to my family in Georgia for almost a month while I figured out how to make both work.


WHITFIELD: Yeah and in relation to this topic, you know, this is commonly referred to as the motherhood penalty. And basically the feeling that women, in general, but also for the purposes of this podcast, Black women, feel like they have to make that choice.

Because it's either you be this model employee who's extremely flexible and can come in at all these various hours, but on the other hand, it also comes at the price of, you know, not being able to be as present or available to their children. And like in your case, it's also an issue of childcare, because a lot of times this is the reality that the hours have to coincide. And you know, I would expect a lot of people leave certain industries like yours because they can't—

TAM: —keep up.

WHITFIELD: Yeah and I know. I grew up with my mom working in the retail industry, and the only thing that saved us in earlier days was that we had family near us. But as you pointed out, a lot of people now live further away from their families. They're not, you know, really close physically to their families. And I know you've also said that you did want to work it out, but it just seemed like they were not interested in kind of trying to work with your childcare needs.


TAM: The first one didn't open until 8:00. And then the second one, which I had to have within a three-month period after the first one, didn't open until 6:30 am. But I did find an earlier one, but unfortunately, 5:45 doesn't cover either. So (laughing) yeah.

WHITFIELD: And that's actually a very common issue. I mean, this has been an issue regarding childcare—I mean, childcare pretty much, if you can even find it, and it's also been pointed out that it's extremely expensive—it's usually very traditional hours that in many cases don't really coincide with even a traditional workday. It really is, you know, a real issue.

You felt like you were being kind of pushed out of the position, and your issue was really that you felt like you had paid your dues. And what did you want?

TAM: More or less, I wanted the schedule accommodation. Because if I had spent all this time, and it was almost three years, and I've never called out and was always there, and was always present, I expect that you all to return a favor and be present for me. It's not as if I wanted to not be in my position. It's not as if I didn't want to do the amount of work that needed to be done. I simply just wanted to– Because this was out of my control. I have no control over how people run their businesses. It’s simply– It’s an issue that Tam can't fix. This isn't a Tam thing. This is what childcare is.

And unfortunately where I worked and who I worked with, see he didn't have to go through this. This was a white male, who I believe his mother-in-law lived in the house with them. So, see, you didn't have to interview childcare, childcare recipients. You didn't have to, you know, wake up in the morning, drop the child off, bring them to it. You didn't have to do any of that, because you kind of had in-house care. And I'm not blaming you for that, but on top of that you were married. So basically, you adjusted your schedule to where you and your wife kind of worked, you know, the same hours, okay. You put yourself off every weekend, all that stuff.

So going back to what you said earlier, it was not only paying for [childcare] to stay open, or for me sometimes it was to open earlier—the first person charged $20 per hour that she had to open earlier.

So think about it, if she opened at 8:00, and I had to be at work at 5:45, I'm roughly asking her to open about three hours earlier than what she normally does. So that's an additional $60, basically every day, because you're scheduling me 5:45 five days a week. Think about it. So if I'm already giving her $180, $200 by the end of the week, I probably would have paid like $400 just to work—to get her to open early, to ask if she could work on the weekends. One time I had to work 5:45 on a Saturday. She charged me $100. So you might as well say in a week I’d given her $280. We're not even talking about late fees and all of that good stuff. So yeah, they made it their business to make it difficult for me so that I would get so fed up that I would quit.

WHITFIELD: And ultimately you did find another job. So what was that experience?


TAM: After talking to HR, after sending various emails, after having various verbal conversations with my manager, it just was obvious that this was not going to change. So I continued to apply for jobs. I continued to put the applications in, and so it took me about seven to eight months from the time that I had actually came back to get another job. And at first, even that was a godsend. It was more money. I was in the department head position i.e. I was over everything, so I could do my own schedule. So that helped. It was more helpful, again at the time, but just time went on, and like I said, I kind of just went from– Unfortunately I noticed I went from one extreme to the next.

WHITFIELD: What were the challenges at the new position? So what ultimately became an issue there?

WHITFIELD: Ultimately what became the issue [was] a little less of the parenting discrimination, because they were understanding, however, it then turned into the sex and the race discrimination. I was a Black woman in this position where nothing but white men had been in. Okay, so let's start there. This had also been a challenging situation prior to me coming for about two or three years. And when I say a challenging situation, I mean that the facilities that were on the property had not been performing as well as they used to perform. And this was under, you know on-and-off, these white men's direction.


So then I come in, okay, you wanted things to change but then you also didn't want to give me the time to change it. So you basically micromanaged. It was constant put-down. It did get into my mommying when you expect me to be there because I don't have– I couldn't count on my staff.

So let's just say someone called out, I'm the department head. Now today's supposed to be my day off, but now I have to work, you know. So it was things of that nature. And it was the employees, and it was the boss, and you were constantly just kind of on top about these great expectations that I had told you from the beginning were going to take time. So as time went on, you all just turned into really just these horrible people. You even then started saying little things like, about two or three months in, I was told that I had resting bitch face.

And a little after that, a volunteer opportunity came up and the director of HR at that time, when I was asked in front of her “Hey Tam, why don't you go volunteer?” Because I just, I don't do that, you know? She was like, “Well, she doesn't because she's dead inside.” You know so I'm here I am, months later, at another job that I had hoped was different. But again, it wasn't the extreme I had left, but here's another extreme that I have to face. You know, dealing with men who don't want to take direction from a woman. Dealing with people who don't want to take direction from a young Black woman. So it was just challenges all around, complete.

And then losing people in the middle of everything. I was really– I had three supervisors and about six months in I was down a supervisor, so that means I had to fill in. So I was then working six days a week filling in. So it goes back to mommying, and it goes back to childcare—so now I have to be there at 6 a.m. Okay, what time was my childcare provider open? 6 a.m. (laughing). Okay, so I'm at the door, you know, at 6 a.m. dropping her off, but then I don't get to work until 6:30. So it was just– I was just like, dear God, please let up on me. Like what can I do? What else can I offer out? You know, how can I approach this situation? I thought this was a better situation. Unfortunately, that ended with me and the company being in current litigation. So yeah, that's how that ended.


WHITFIELD: So ultimately, you felt the need to find a position that works better with your parenting responsibilities. But making that change also did come with a high price as well.

TAM: Yeah. That unfortunately again, and it's extreme as extreme as extreme. So you get from the pregnancy and the parenting discrimination, and then you flow into more of the, like I said earlier, the race and the sex discrimination, and then you get to a point where you’re like, “Okay, I don't have any of this. This is perfect.”

WHITFIELD: Let me just back up because I want to make sure that everyone just heard what happened. You took another position, but it also came with a really big pay cut. So tell us a little bit about why.

TAM: Right yeah, so I took another position to kind of flow with everything that I was doing, being a mom being, you know, having the position, whatever it was. And I took roughly about a $30,000 pay cut, a little over $30,000. Now, this allowed me to work Monday through Friday and not have to pay anybody on the weekends. But unfortunately, for supplemental income I ended up having to keep whatever the part time jobs that I had prior to getting the full time job. I unfortunately had to keep all of them. So as we even speak, I’m on four people's payroll. So I basically still put myself in a position where, okay, I can enjoy the weekends, but I kind of can't because I took a $30,000 pay cut as the head of household, as a single mom. And unfortunately, as much as I try to enjoy it, it's a lot of times paycheck-to-paycheck because things still have to be paid. Childcare still has to be paid. Car bills still have to be paid, car insurance. And you know, rent, and it's just coming from one person's pocket, so I have to supplement.

So unfortunately this results in sometimes Tam working– At the most at this point I’ve worked 25 days straight. This results in Tam working six days every other week or six days every week. It just– It's like I don't know at this point what– Well, I have suggestions (laughing), but at this point, what would need to happen for us as Black women, whether it was a single parent or married parent, where is our– Just where's the end of it? Where's the end of it? [When] are we just, you know, not constantly put in positions where we're on the short end of the stick, right? That's the question. Regardless of what it was. From basically from the time I was pregnant up until now, I have found myself in various positions of being on the short end of the stick because of all of this.


WHITFIELD: And does it really kind of just go back to feeling like less valued as an employee?

TAM: Absolutely, absolutely. And what's unfortunate, but what's also fortunate, but what was unfortunate for me is I did not look at my employers this way prior to being pregnant and having my daughter. My third eye was completely closed. But after I had her and after I got back to work, and then from work to this very day, my third eye has completely opened and I'll never shut it. Like, I'll never look at an employer, the way that they possibly– You know, the way that I used to.

I was like, “Oh, I love coming to work, I love being flexible. I love being trustworthy, I love being blah, blah, blah.” But now it's like, just unfortunately you all can't get that from me, because I know in the time of need, or I know if I was to have more children, I don't know, or to get married, or go through any other like important life event, that you'll turn your backs on me. It's just, it's what will happen. I will not be afforded, you know, the same luxuries as a white woman or as a white man or, seriously regardless of what some of them do, they'll never be looked down upon the way that we are. And it's super unfortunate.

But also I think lastly that people need to be held responsible. My past managers should have been held responsible, they should not have been supported in what they did and how they did it. They should not have been supported. They should have been held responsible, I should have had a lot more support in knowing that I'm good for it. I've always been. What else have I shown you, other than a dependable trustworthy person? So the support is needed. But it just scares me to think that I don't think anybody's going to ever really show up for us, not just for pregnant women, because again, pregnant white women don't have to deal with the same things we do. Who's going to show up for us as Black women? Who's going to stand in the gap? And who's going to lobby for these things? And who's going to fight for the things that we're not, you know, constantly picked out to be picked on?


WHITFIELD: Well, thank you so much Tam, for sharing your story. Many women are voiceless. They're afraid, or like you mentioned, they feel intimidated or bullied, to not speak up.

TAM: Thank you so much.

WHITFIELD: Our show today was reported and produced by me, Chandra Thomas Whitfield, and edited by Tim Jones and House of Pod. You’re listening to Convoy Lines by Blue Dot Sessions. In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine, which has been covering issues of equity and social justice since 1976. To learn more about In The Gap, go to www.inthesetimes.com/inthegap.