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Workin’ Moms: Unapologetically Exploring Maternity Issues

While searching for my next round of binge-worthy treadmill fare on Netflix, I came across Workin’ Moms. The Canadian sitcom is in its third season, but its first season was released in the United States on Netflix last month.

Source: Halfpoint / shutterstock

Workin’ Moms follows four Toronto moms, with four completely different life situations, bound together by a “mommy and me” group. There’s Kate (Catherine Reitman), the main character, an ad agency exec who admittedly got pregnant at the “top of her game.” Then there’s Anne (Dani Kind), who finds out in the pilot episode she is pregnant with her third child, and she has a tween and an 8-month old. She also maintains a psychiatry practice from her home. Then, there is Jenny (Jessalyn Wanlim), who is not ready to return to work after maternity leave. When she does return, she becomes infatuated with her new boss, “Marvin the Manager,” (Alden Adair). Meanwhile, her husband (Dennis Andres) is an aspiring screenwriter and a stay-at-home dad. And finally, Frankie (Juno Rinaldi), who suffers twice from postpartum depression, winds up selling her family’s home while her family is still living in it.

The 22-minute (per episode) dramedy checks all boxes you’d expect in a show that lives up to its name:

  • Lactating moms and pumping accommodations,
  • Sex stereotypes,
  • Moms dealing with postpartum depression, and
  • Actions, by some of the moms, which could be characterized as sexual harassment.

Wait … What?

While a discussion of the latter two issues might be more salacious, the former two—pumping accommodations and sex stereotypes—caught my attention as an employment lawyer.

It is important to note that Canada’s laws regarding maternity leave, referred to as “mat” leave by the workin’ moms, differ from the United States. New moms in Canada get up to 17 weeks of job-protected maternity leave, plus up to 63 weeks of job-protected leave to care for a newborn, and some of it is paid. The laws regarding accommodation of lactating moms have some similarities.

In the pilot episode, upon Kate’s return to work, we observe her magnificent “green” office composed entirely of windows and glass walls. When Kate announces to her boss she is lactating and pumping, he “jokingly” opines that she will make a spectacle. She states, with no disagreement, that she will pump in the bathroom. She ultimately uses the bathroom to pump and makes a business call during her pumping session, which is hilariously interrupted by a toilet flush.

In the United States, the law requires that a private area other than a bathroom should be offered for pumping. And reasonable lactation breaks must be given, paid or unpaid, depending on the circumstances and exempt status. Although Kate was willing to and actually suggested that she would use the bathroom as her pumping area, Kate did not engage in an interactive process with anyone regarding accommodation of her need to pump.

Workin’ Moms Rife With Sex Stereotyping

Lactation accommodation issues aside, the most prominent employment issue on the show was the plethora of sex stereotyping. And the perpetrators were women.

While Kate was out, Mo (Kevin Vidal), an ambitious, young, and unattached ad exec was hired to take on some of Kate’s work. He ultimately became her competitor for a 3-month assignment in Montreal, which appears to be a 6-hour drive or a 1-hour plane ride away. Kate applied for the assignment. In the interview, the only female interviewer told Kate she assumed that Kate would not be interested in the assignment because she was a new mom. This seemed to energize Kate to pursue the assignment even though she previously seemed on the fence about applying. Kate was ultimately offered the position, and she accepted it (much to the chagrin of her husband).

Adverse action aside, the female interviewer’s behavior is a classic example of sex stereotyping. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that making employment decisions based on sex stereotyping—whether an individual conforms to traditional notions of what is appropriate for one’s gender—is actionable discrimination under Title VII. Examples of sex stereotyping include presuming that a mother of young children will not be dedicated to her job or that such a mother would not be interested in or dedicated to a position in which extensive travel is required. It could also include opinions that a woman should walk, talk, or dress more femininely. These biases exist in innocuous places. Just look at this article’s analysis of an Internet search of “working mom” versus “working dad” clip art.

On Kate’s first day at the Montreal assignment, she met her client, Victoria Stromanger (Wendy Crewson). Victoria was idolized by Kate, and she was known for shattering the glass ceiling in her industry. Kate noticed, from the pictures on Victoria’s desk, that she was a mother to three boys, now men, and when Kate asked Victoria if she missed them, she responded: “when it’s convenient.”

In a team meeting about Kate’s first major pitch, Victoria bluntly asked what Kate would wear to the meeting, and Kate responded that she would wear a black suit. Victoria asked and Kate allowed Victoria to dress her, and the result was a big-buttoned tan suit described by Kate as “Hillary Clintonesque,” circa 1990. She ultimately wore the tan suit, and during the meeting, she received a frantic call from her husband that he had taken their son to the hospital. Kate stepped back into the meeting, visibly distracted, and announced to the room that her son was in the hospital. Victoria abruptly ended the meeting and scolded Kate about talking about her family issues while in this forum. Kate ultimately returned home and visited her son in the hospital, using her persuasion skills to convince the nurse to violate hospital rules by allowing her to sleep with her son in his crib.

Again, adverse action aside, Victoria’s conduct could also be characterized as sex stereotyping when she encouraged Kate to wear a more feminine suit and when she chided her for speaking about family issues in the pitch meeting. Would Victoria have treated Kate’s male comparator in the same manner? We will never know, but it remains to be seen how Victoria and Kate reacted since season 2 is not yet available on Netflix.

Bottom Line

Mothers are a valuable element of the workforce. Working moms are often characterized as able to multitask under pressure and to use time efficiently. Furthermore, for diversity and inclusion purposes, mothers can provide valuable insight when trying to understand an enormous market. According to this 2017 Forbes article, “[t]hough mothers control 85% of household purchases and have a spending power of $2.4 trillion, three out of four moms still say companies have no idea what it’s like being a mom.” Keeping stereotypes in check and properly addressing accommodation issues could prevent the alienation of such a valuable group of employees.

Destiny Washington focuses her practice at FordHarrison’s Atlanta office on the representation of employers in labor and employment law matters. Her experience representing an international union and state and local government entities, including law enforcement agencies and school districts, gives her a unique perspective in her advice and representation. A former military print journalist, she has proudly served her country and is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Louisiana Army National Guard. Find her on LinkedIn here.