“You were on maternity leave. You won’t be eligible for promotion this year.”
My manager told me during our annual appraisal meeting. I had always been a hardworking employee, and I was expecting a promotion that year. I was a new mom, but that didn’t stop me from performing at the workplace. But still, I heard what I heard.
I would have forgotten it had it been just a one-of-a-kind incident. It kept continuing all through my working years. “Let someone else take care of your daughter tonight,” a colleague poked one day during a team dinner as I was frantically looking at my watch. I was working in a call centre where the majority of the workforce was young, obviously with “no child” and “no obligations,” unlike me.
I was thinking in my head that all this was happening just with me. But, no—I met other working moms from different job fields at different points of time and heard similar stories. They too had to go through bullies and judgmental comments at their workplaces, just like me.
“My son was young, so I used to come early and leave early. Although I ensured I clocked in the mandatory nine hours, still I used to get raised eyebrows from my coworkers,” said Chaitrali, a working mother.
“I had to take an unplanned leave when my daughter was sick. She was just two then. My manager escalated it and made a lot of insensitive comments. The next day I started looking out for the job,” said Rashmi, another working mom.
Yes, workplace bias is real. It has got a name too! The Harvard Business Review calls this “maternal wall bias.”
Who can be a bully?
Bullies can be anyone at a workplace—horrible bosses who knowingly schedule meetings after office hours so that a working mother go back late at home to put her daughter to sleep.
Bullies can be mean coworkers who repeatedly ask questions like, “Don’t you miss your child?” “How can you leave your child and go on business trips?”—or rude bosses who ask you to choose between your child and your career.
We also see sick workplace management where working mothers are made to slog every single day.
“When my second child was born, my workplace refused to give me a sabbatical break. They insisted I resign and if I again join back later, I would have to reapply and go through the selection process. I, of course, resigned,” recalls Shweta who now works independently.
Dealing with workplace bullying
It’s 2020, and workplace discrimination continues even today—especially so for working moms. So, how do you deal with it?
Before we discuss that, let’s understand that discriminatory attitudes can be nondeliberate or deliberate.
What is nondeliberate discrimination?
Working moms face unique challenges that are difficult for a nonparent coworker or a boss to understand.
For example, the nonparent coworkers used to schedule daily calls at 6:30 p.m. when I had to pick up my daughter from the day care. I understand they were not doing it purposely though. But they simply failed to understand that it was as important to pick up my daughter at that time as it was to be present in those calls.
What is deliberate discrimination?
Unlike nondeliberate discrimination, deliberate discrimination is done purposely. For example, my boss knew that I have a young child and I need to pick her up from day care, but he would purposely ask for meetings after 6 p.m. The best way to sort out such situations is by talking one-on-one.
1. Talking about it up-front with your boss can be helpful to nip the problem at the bud. Maybe you can try this, “Can we schedule this call an hour early so that I can pick up my child at 6 p.m.? Or, I can join the meeting on a call if it is necessary to be at 6?”
2. You can also try to make arrangements so that someone else can pick up your child, maybe your partner, a neighbour, or a friend?
3. Or, you can request the day care to extend the time by an hour or so.
When the boss is the bully
Is your boss or a supervisor criticizing your performance or denying you your due promotion just because you are a mom?
1. The first thing you should do is record all the conversation and save it. Don’t take anything verbally, ask for a written record, and save it.
2. File all the documents of projects you have worked on, any recognition or appreciation mails that you received from clients, colleagues, and stakeholders.
3. Finally, report your case to the appropriate authority. Support your arguments with all the records and documents. Remember to retain copies for your personal record.
When a colleague is the bully
Bullying can be done by a colleague or a coworker too. Making insensitive jokes, passing remarks, ridiculing repeatedly are all signs of bullying. If you are getting bullied by a colleague at work:
1. Confront the person.
2. Talk to your boss and the colleague’s boss.
3. Reach out to your HR department.
4. Read the company policy to understand the workplace’s stand on bullying. Take actions accordingly.
Are you a victim of workplace bullying?
Are you experiencing constant bullying, insensitive remarks from coworkers? Here are some tips that will help you to deal with what you’re going through right now:
Stand up for yourself
Be it deliberate or nondeliberate discriminatory behaviours, learn to confront the situation by speaking up for yourself. Remember, the sooner, the better. Delaying may only worsen the situation.
Go through the company policy
Usually, organizations have a strict policy against bullying. If you’re not familiar with your company guidelines, it’s time to pick up a copy of your employee handbook and read through it to understand the organization policy to deal with bullying.
Speak to your supervisor
If the bully is not your boss, then take him/her in confidence to deal with the issue. Your boss should be your first point of contact to discuss the matter.
Talk to HR
If you are getting bullied by your boss, identify someone in the HR department with whom you can discuss the issue.
Last resort—get help from legal
If none of the above solutions work, then it is time to take legal action. However, remember, reaching out to legal experts should be your last resort. Also, keep documents of all the interactions, copies of emails, and other pieces of evidence ready in case you decide to take legal help.
Your mental health matters
Getting bullied repetitively at the workplace can damage your mental health and affect your personal life. Don’t let bullying come in between you and your child. If you are feeling stressed, talk about it to someone you trust, preferably outside the workplace. Keep yourself surrounded by positive people and environments.
Remember, ignoring your mental health can lead to anxiety and panic attacks. If everything gets too overwhelming for you to handle, feel no shame in seeking help from mental health experts. If you are caught up in an unhealthy workplace or working in an organization that has no policies to deal with bullying, then it is in your best interest to start searching for a new job.
I chose to walk away from the toxic culture because mental peace is what matters to me most. I left the corporate world and started on my own as an independent writer, and I am proud to say that I am doing well. All this while I believed in myself, and that helped a lot in building a positive environment for myself.
Staying surrounded by people who believe in your ability is another way to brave the situation and emerge stronger.