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Here's how moms get pushed out of the workforce

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This week, Katharine Zaleski confessed her sins against motherhood on Fortune, and it went viral.

Zaleski is now the cofounder and president of PowerToFly, a firm that works to match women with flexible jobs. But before that, she was working in media, at the Washington Post and Huffington Post.

Her column no doubt did well for the sheer shock value. (She recounts how she said nothing when an editor proposed firing someone "before she 'got pregnant.'") But another reason it resonates so strongly could be that the worst of Zaleski's actions line up with emerging research around the ways women — especially moms — are discriminated against in the workplace. Women have felt this for years. But the research, and now the confessions, are catching up.

Zaleski recounts a few of her worst transgressions:

1. I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her "commitment" even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day.

2. I didn’t disagree when another female editor said we should hurry up and fire another woman before she "got pregnant."

3. I sat in a job interview where a male boss grilled a mother of three and asked her, "How in the world are you going to be able to commit to this job and all your kids at the same time?" I didn’t give her any visual encouragement when the mother – who was a top cable news producer at the time – looked at him and said, "Believe it or not, I like being away from my kids during the workday… just like you."

4. I scheduled last minute meetings at 4:30 pm all of the time. It didn’t dawn on me that parents might need to pick up their kids at daycare. I was obsessed with the idea of showing my commitment to the job by staying in the office "late" even though I wouldn’t start working until 10:30 am while parents would come in at 8:30 am.

It's easy to see why the column went viral: it's not only enraging, but it's also a conversion story — once Zaleski had a baby herself, the scales fell from her eyes and she realized the error of her ways.

She also gets into some of the very issues researchers have begun uncovering.

For example, many working moms know that "opting out" isn't always opting out. Zaleski's story echoes an eye-opening December study of Harvard Business School alums. Many of those high-achieving women had stopped working, not because they wanted to be stay-at-home moms but because the working world had started to shun them.

[T]he vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement. The message that they are no longer considered "players" is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: They may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led.

Some women get subtle messages, as Harvard's researchers write...and as Zaleski shows, some women get interviewers asking them how they'll commit to a job and kids at the same time.

A lack of flexibility for parents can also show up in women's paychecks. For example, Zaleski expected parents to conform to a non-parent schedule, coming to 4:30 pm meetings. That kind of rigidity can prevent women from keeping up with men. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin found in a 2014 study that flexibility in hours plays a huge part in creating more pay equality between men and women. As she wrote, "The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours."

It's true that Zaleski and Harvard Business School alums are breathing some rarefied air. But even the most basic kind of flexibility is unavailable to many American workers. According to the White House, only 39 percent of US workers report having access to paid family leave for the birth of a child. Even more shockingly, employers say only 11 percent of workers are covered, meaning some employers may be offering informal arrangements.

It's true that not all bias in the workplace is as deliberate as that in Zaleski's former world — indeed, a lot of it may be subconscious. But it reflects a twisted attitude — that our society values motherhood but not the mothers themselves. In cards, poems, songs, movies, books, even commercials, we are very good at honoring mothers for being moms. What we seem to have trouble with is when those moms need to earn money or want to advance their careers.

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