Olympic Runner Alysia Montaño Is Helping Women Choose Motherhood *and* Their Career
The seven-time U.S. outdoor track champion is using her platform to start a nonprofit that aims to give moms the fighting chance they deserve to work and mother. Here's how you can help do the same.
One year after publishing her viral New York Times op-ed, which put a spotlight on the lack of sponsor support for female athletes who chose to be mothers, Olympic runner and seven-time U.S. outdoor track champion Alysia Montaño is taking her #DreamMaternity movement one step further by starting a nonprofit called &Mother. The foundation will aim to help support women in choosing both motherhood and their career.
"We're trying to be the driving force in breaking down a system that's historically dismissed, undervalued, and discriminated against mothers, starting with professional athletics and hoping to move across industries," says Montaño.
It's a message that hits home for many moms—not just athletes. "At some point in their careers, many women face the difficult choice between family and career," explains Mayra Ruiz-Castro, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in ethics at the University of Roehampton who studies equality and ethics in organizations.
After all, barriers for moms exist in every industry. "If you look around, often what you see is that the mothers are missing," says Molly Dickens, Ph.D., co-founder of &Mother. "I've seen it in academia, science, the business world, the start-up world, sports, everywhere." (Related: Serena Williams' Message to Working Moms Will Make You Feel Seen)
Why? Well, the working world wasn't exactly built with women in mind. "Historically, women have been the primary carers and do more of the domestic and emotional work in most households around the world," says Ruiz-Castro. Even in the 21st century, we tend to impose the expectations attached to our gender roles upon ourselves because that's the way we've been socialized, she says.
"The two biggest issues facing us today are tackling the institutional forces that put work and parenthood in conflict with each other and de-gendering caretaking by acknowledging that the ability and desire to care for others is universal—it's not confined just to women," explains Kathleen Gerson, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at New York University.
Those are big issues. But there is some change happening. PL+US (Paid Leave for the United States), for example, is a national public advocacy group that—through partnerships, campaigns, and research—has already worked to get paid leave for 6 million people at companies such as Starbucks and Walmart. Currently, the U.S. does not have a national paid family leave policy, and as a result, some companies also offer better benefits, maternity leaves, and family policies than others. To that extent, Gerson notes that policies can't be piecemeal. "That's where we as a nation are lagging behind virtually every other advanced industrial society with the exception of a few," she says. "We don't have policies that mandate the norm." That's why PL+US's goal is to win paid family leave for everyone in the U.S. by 2022.
Generous parental leave; affordable, quality childcare; family-friendly employers; and workplace social support might sound like pie in the sky. But then, so did the policies that brought us the 40-hour workweek and unemployment insurance, says Gerson. "They happened when enough people saw that this was necessary to be able to live a decent life," says Gerson.
Social change happens in many ways. And while big-picture societal changes are a key aspect of it, here are three small suggestions to help moms get the support they need at work and at home today.
Catch Your Assumptions
"Assumptions, bias, and stereotypes about what a woman is capable of in sports and what her body is capable of, let alone what a mother is capable of, are deeply ingrained," explains Dickens. Look no further than the "motherhood penalty"—a term coined by sociologists to describe the discrimination and loss of income moms face in the workplace—for proof.
Let's look at the field of veterinary medicine for a second. (It's a female-dominant industry; 76 percent of vet school grads are women, according to research.) One study of veterinary surgeons found that when people who hadn't had children were asked what sort of impact they thought having kids would have on their career path, 81 percent of women (versus 50 percent of men) expected a negative impact. The other side of that stat? When people with children were asked if having kids negatively impacted their career path, 51 percent of women said it had (whereas 34 percent of men said it had). Fifty-one percent is still too high. But it's not 81 percent high. (Related: Why Alex Morgan Wants More Athletes to Embrace Motherhood In Their Careers)
Many assumptions (whether we make them about ourselves or about others) can be unconscious, says Dickens. Clear communication—asking questions if you're unsure about something and stating your needs to give others an accurate portrayal of the needs of a parent, for example—can go a long way even on a small scale toward making changes. Don't shy away from making your voice heard.
Know Your Value—Wherever That Is
If you're a working mom, you can likely feel some serious mom guilt from time to time. But a study co-authored by Ruiz-Castro found that adult daughters of employed mothers were more likely to be employed, earn higher salaries, and be in supervisory roles than daughters whose mother stayed home. Even more: "We found that the positive effects on daughters' employment are stronger when daughters become mothers themselves," she says. Plus, the data also found that sons raised by working moms spend more time with their families than sons of mothers who didn't work.
And if your work is raising your kids? "A parent who feels happy and fulfilled with their life is good for children, whatever their choice may be," says Gerson. "I think we really have to remember that there's never been a one-size-fits-all—and that's true for men as well as women."(Just take this mother-daughter duo, for example, who been working together for a decade.)
If You Can, Fight the Collective Battle
Many women fear speaking up about a lack of support or policies at work because of potential repercussions (i.e. what if I get fired?). And that's a problem. "For those of us who are in a point of privilege and can speak up, be visible, and raise each other up, we should latch onto that," says Dickens. Even talking to coworkers who are mothers about issues they're facing or confronting a manager about something like a lactation space can be helpful. "If you've already gone through something, it's easier to advocate for other women," adds Dickens. (Need some inspo? Look no further than these female athletes speaking out about equal pay.)
In a position of leadership? "In any profession, modeling starts at the top," says Gerson. Pushing family-friendly policies forward—even small ones—helps more than just moms. "Study after study shows that companies that provide policies and a culture supporting the integration of work and parenting tend to thrive," says Gerson. "You're in a better position to attract a more enthusiastic workforce and have workers who enjoy their work and have a stronger level of commitment."