My brother was listening to a talkback radio program one day about the failure of many women lawyers to make partnership in law firms, despite entering the profession in ever-increasing numbers. Several callers and commentators made the point that women's child-bearing years overlapped with a critical career period, thus leaving them at a disadvantage, which most of them saw as insurmountable. He listened for a while, increasingly incredulous. ''Haven't women always had children?'' he asked me as he recounted the conversation later. ''Surely,'' he said, ''these law firms could adjust their practices and career paths to reflect this fact?''
Well, yes they have and they could. Women have been entering the workforce for a fair few decades now and pouring out of universities and higher education, too. But structurally we may as well be stuck in the 1950s for all the adjustments that have been made to social attitudes about family responsibilities - although at least these days women don't have to resign when they get married or announce their pregnancy.
Nevertheless, when women do have kids the penalties in the workplace can be swift and severe, and self-reinforcing of attitudes about female involvement in the workplace in general.
Motherhood bias can be brutal and blatant. In a well-known study on the topic, Getting a job: Is there a motherhood penalty?, Stanford University academic Shelley Correll and co-author Stephen Benard conducted a laboratory experiment in which participants evaluated application materials for a pair of same-race, same-gender, ostensibly real-job applicants who were equally qualified, but differed on parental status. I often cite this study when speaking at forums because it never fails to draw a gasp of surprise and horror from the audience.
Correll and Benard found that, ''relative to other kinds of applicants, mothers were rated as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hire, promotion and management training, and deserving of lower salaries''. They were also held to stricter performance standards, while men were not penalised for being parents and appeared to benefit from having children on some measures. ''At some level, there is still a perceived incompatibility between family and the workplace, which disadvantages mothers,'' Correll told the Clayman Institute for Gender Research in 2009. ''Organisations may be making errors in judgment based on stereotypical assumptions that prevent them from hiring the best person for the job.'' Another finding was that while mothers were often perceived as not working hard enough, when they did work hard, they were seen as unlikeable and selfish. You really can't win that one, can you?
Some of the reaction is linked to traditional ideals about parenting and a lingering sense that women with kids have made their bed (all the beds probably) and should lie in it. I once heard the decision to have a family described as a lifestyle choice, which rather neatly reflected this idea that raising a family was just like buying an expensive appliance - a little show-offy and selfish. Or a bit like a mild infection that you keep picking up. And goodness, us girls just can't seem to kick the habit, can we? Oh, there is the need to perpetuate the human race and all that, and on the other hand, the over-the-top reaction if women happen to remain childless (although little of this judgment is directed at men with or without kids). You only have to think about the furore over Julia Gillard's empty kitchen and the fact that her lack of children has made her the target of several offensive and barbed comments in public - and many more in private, no doubt. We are still vaguely suspicious of women who don't have children, but not so much of men. As a friend pointed out to me, there's an assumption that all childless women have made a deliberate decision about the matter, when in fact a host of reasons could be involved. A rock and a hard place comes to mind.
When I speak about this issue at forums or in the column, it's clear from the response that many mothers have at least encountered some form of conscious or thoughtless judgment. And many of them tell me the experience converted them into feminists. In fact, the federal sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, often talks about how her awareness was raised when she had a family. Up until her conversion - she dubs it ''late-onset feminism'' - she believed nothing would hamper her career path at a law firm, so the effect was a shock and an incentive to make things change. Sadly, the punitive attitudes to mothers means that there's still a lot of maternity discrimination around, most commonly involving a ''restructuring'' while the employee is on maternity leave that can leave them out of a job. This only got worse during the financial crisis when any deviation from full-time workloads was seen as indulgent. It's so much easier to let someone go when you think they are having a paid break and they really shouldn't come back to a job anyway.
This is why traditionalists have little patience with the struggle mothers encounter when blending paid and unpaid work, because they believe most women belong at home and can only be effective in one role at a time. Blithely ignoring the financial imperative to have a job, there's an assumption, usually covert in the workplace, that if women with kids are struggling they should get out of the workplace and leave it to those who are unencumbered. Many a chief executive has told me that motherhood is the only significant problem for women in the workforce and no other kind of discrimination really occurs or inhibits them.
Hmm, that qualifies as a convenient excuse if ever I've heard one. As a mother of three I would be the last person to suggest that parenting has no toll on a woman's paid job, and sleep pattern, but the statistics on women's representation in Australian businesses are so poor it doesn't make sense to conclude that all the problems arise from motherhood. Children do grow up and careers last for 45-plus years. I think the attitudes towards mothers in the workplace are but one aspect of broader gender discrimination that kicks in from the time a woman enters it. Despite the claims that having kids typically ruins a woman's career trajectory as they take long periods of leave and switch to part-time hours, the reality is a bit different.
■ This is an edited extract from 7 Myths About Women and Work, by Catherine Fox. (New South Books, $29.99.)
■ Catherine Fox is deputy editor of AFR Boss magazine and writes a weekly column, Corporate Woman, for the Australian Financial Review.