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He's not the only one judging working moms

Come on, give Mr. Justice Douglas Cunningham a hand. At least he had the courage to say it.

The Ontario Superior Court judge expressed the unspeakable when he suggested that working mom Lisa MacLeod, the 34-year-old MPP for Nepean-Carleton, had too much on her plate with "a number of rather significant things that were going on in her life" for him to accept her testimony as corroboration of the Crown's key witness in the corruption trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien.

He inadvertently voiced what many are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone say publicly: working moms face harsh judgment.

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Look, many women opt to "balance" their working lives with their responsibilities at home once they have children. They do so happily because they want to be as involved as they can be as parents. (Okay, guilt plays a part, too.) But there are plenty of working mothers who return to the workplace with driving ambition intact.

And besides, who doesn't have life stages that affect the way they work? Divorce takes its toll on concentration levels. So does worry about elderly parents.

And I'm sure there are dog owners out there in cubicle land who are thinking about what Fido, the basset hound, is doing home alone at 2 p.m.

We fixate on working mothers - an obsession that's a backhanded comment about women's desire to work.

The phrase "working dad," let's not forget, is not part of the cultural parlance. There is an American magazine called Working Mother. No such thing as Working Father. It is women who are judged for how (and if) they combine work and home.

And the uncomfortable truth is, many working mothers confront the persistent assumption in the workplace that once they have children, they become not only less committed to their job, but somehow less competent. Many people assume that the juggling of work and family means a ball will drop in some area of a working mother's life.

"She was commuting regularly to Toronto for her work, leaving her husband and child in Ottawa," Judge Cunningham explained in his judgment in July, which exonerated Mr. O'Brien. Her father had also been diagnosed with cancer in March, 2007.

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"Ms. MacLeod's recollection of a brief, casual portion of her conversation is so imprecise that, through no fault of her own, I must assign it little weight," Judge Cunningham wrote.

Gee. It sounded as though he was giving her a gentle, there-there pat on her shoulder. Poor dear, she had too much to think about, what with her husband looking after their four-year-old daughter at home. She was probably too stressed about what her daughter was eating for snack to be able to accurately recall the facts of her conversation in July, 2006, when she met with Mr. O'Brien, who was then considering a run for the mayor's office.

Few would dare to say something so politically incorrect, of course. And while some may say that the 69-year-old judge is out of touch and a throwback to another era, there are just as many who feel that retro (and now taboo) stereotypes persist.

I recently heard of a male manager who admitted that his heart sinks when he hears of a female employee's pregnancy. He immediately thinks of her as a less valued employee. "When they come back, they are so lame," he reportedly complained about women returning from mat leave.

The patriarchy is not dead. It has just gone hush-hush. And sometimes it's even workplace sisters who are secretly thinking that working mothers go soft when they unleash their ovaries.

"There has been progress made, but at the same time women are still dealing with the stereotypical attitudes that both men and women hold about the role of women in the workplace, especially that of working mothers," says Carol Frohlinger, New York-based principal of Negotiating Women and author of Her Place at the Table. "Compared to male colleagues, when women come back from maternity leave, they have two strikes against them. They were out for a length of time and may have missed important developments, and now they are viewed as having one foot in the workplace and one foot in the nursery."

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Studies show that fathers are viewed as more responsible in the work force than childless men. With a family to support, it is assumed, they will work harder. Working mothers, meanwhile, are viewed as less committed, Ms. Frohlinger says. In some studies, the "mommy penalty," as some researchers have called the discrimination, results in working mothers earning 6 per cent less than childless female employees.

Of course, some say that advancement has arrived and that such talk of discrimination is counter-productive. "What we need to do is clear our heads of old notions and really celebrate the contribution that working mothers make to Canadian business," says Deborah Gillis, vice-president, North America, and Toronto head of Catalyst, a leading non-profit advocacy group for the advancement of women in the workplace. They do not reflect the changing face of Canadian business, she says, in which women, including working mothers, are critical employees.

Ms. Gillis is all rah-rah, of course, because it is Catalyst's job to work in close partnership with companies to create family-friendly environments in the so-called "war for talent." Conveniently, she doesn't mention that the only reason an organization such as Catalyst exists is because it is trying to fix a problem. Presumably, if family-friendly work environments existed, we wouldn't be trying to create them.

Silent discrimination exists. Judge Cunningham's comments about Ms. MacLeod hold a truth we would rather not hear.

Hey, he's a judge, after all.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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