My friend Barbara was at a meeting of her fellow computer geeks. The speaker said to them all, “I’ll try to explain it so my mother could understand it.” It dawned on Barbara that she remembered others making similar remarks in her economics Ph.D. program, and then she said, “It was always clear to me that [the phrase] meant someone untrained, possibly stupid. This was the first time since I became a mom that I’d heard it. I felt kicked in the stomach.”

Barbara had run smack into a deep, common and largely subconscious stereotype  - namely that mothers aren’t very smart.

Why would that be?

A recent Harvard Magazine profile of social psychologist Amy Cuddy, The Psyche of the Automatic, highlights decades of research on automatic stereotypes and their impact on many different groups – including mothers and fathers – and explains what’s behind the “explain it so my mother could understand it” type of stereotype.

  • Warmth and competence are the two critical factors in how we perceive others.
  • It’s really hard to get people to perceive you as both warm AND competent. “People tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related. If there’s a surplus of one trait, they infer a deficit of the other.” (Cuddy quoted in a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “Just Because I’m Nice, Don’t Assume I’m Dumb.”)
  • Others respond to you in distinctly different ways depending on how they perceive the warmth or competence of a group you belong to according to the grid below.

Simply by nature of the cultural stereotypes and expectations of mothers as caring and nurturing family, mothers are more likely to be perceived as warm and as a result people perceive the opposite of their competence. Thus the “explain it so your mother could understand it” phrase.

Whether a mother is employed or not introduces another layer of perception. If a mother demonstrates her competence in her job, by default people ratchet down their perception of her warmth which in turn reflects poorly on her “mother” role in which she is supposed to be warm.

Being caught between these conflicting stereotypes has several impacts on mothers.

Discrimination on the Job

As the Harvard Magazine explains, “On the job, many studies have shown that working moms are seen as both significantly nicer—and significantly less competent—than working fathers or childless men and women. ‘We call this the ‘motherhood penalty,’ says Cuddy. ‘At the same time, fathers experience the ‘fatherhood bonus.’ They’re viewed as nicer than men without kids, but equally, if not more, competent. They’re seen as heroic: a breadwinner who goes to his kid’s soccer game once in a while. But in or out of the office, working mothers experience a fair bit of hostility from people who think they should be at home with their kids. Researchers have documented thousands of cases of motherhood discrimination; a mother being laid off might hear things like, I know you wanted to be at home anyway.’ ” Another recent study added to stack. An article in Inside HigherEd, Too Nice to Land a Job, shares the results of a study in which women were more likely to be described in reference letters using “supportive” or “communal” words. With all identifying information removed, hiring committees were more likely to rank candidates with those qualities lower. In other words, women are stereotypically described as “nice” and “warm” and that means the perception of their competence goes down.

Disconnect Between Employed Mothers and Mothers That Aren’t

Mothers who are employed have a different experience of motherhood than those who are not because other people interact with these two groups based on very different automatic stereotypes. Mothers who are not employed get pity or get ignored. Mothers who are employed get envy and the cold shoulder. What gets trumped up as “mommy wars” is simply the reality that the experiences of these two groups are so different as a result of experiencing the opposite stereotype in action.

Identity Whiplash

In either group, employed or not, mothers find that people interact with them in ways that conflict with how they think of themselves, The employed mother who perceives herself as a warm and caring parent, crashes into comments that imply she’s not as caring as a good mother should be. A mother who is not employed and perceives herself as smart and competent bumps into comments that she’s dull and boring and not so bright. Opposite stereotypes that have the same result – mothers question their own identity, warmth and competence.

The good news is there are ways to combat these stereotypes. Just read “Tips for Mothers for Busting Stereotypes!”

P.S. For more on these stereotypes, check out Identity Whiplash: An Invisible Epidemic Among Mothers and Fathers and this Quiz to match real quotes to stereotypes about mothers and fathers.

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6 Responses to How Stereotypes About Warmth and Competence Impact Mothers

  1. Freda says:

    Enlightening piece, Kristin, even if disconcerting in that it seems we’re darned if we do and darned if we don’t. Looking forward to those tips!

  2. [...] which discusses her work studying unconscious stereotyping. At her blog, Kristin Maschka offers an excellent summary of the article, honing in on why unconscious stereotyping too often results in the assumption that [...]

  3. [...] the recent article on Amy Cuddy from Harvard and subconscious stereotypes, I thought I’d share this excerpt from my book on how researchers identify these stereotypes (The [...]

  4. [...] only) to be forced to choose either the desire to care for children OR ambition, to be seen as caring OR seen as competent, and to be a dull “stay at home” mom OR a selfish “working [...]

  5. […] have a slight criticism on Kristin’s chart, which says that those who are warm and competent get admiration. I would argue that the Warm and […]

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