TIME Innovation

Why It Might Be Time to Rethink Motherhood

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Motherhood is a cultural invention. It might be time to rethink it.

By Kathleen McCartney in the Boston Globe

2. You should want Facebook to give away your data.

By Tara E. Buck in EdTech

3. Do we have Alzheimer’s completely wrong?

By Turna Ray at Science Friday

4. On the brink of becoming Ebola-free, Liberia should embrace its survivors.

By AllAfrica

5. Can an app improve America’s crumbling infrastructure?

By Ashley Tate in NationSwell

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME motherhood

Childlessness Is Down Among Highly Educated Women

But more moms are having fewer kids

More women with advanced degrees are having children, but the the number of women who have three or four children has declined, according to a new study from Pew Research.

Childlessness among the most educated women has declined in the last 20 years: in 1994, 35% of women with an M.D. or Ph.D. were childless, compared to 20% of women with those degrees today. This may be because more women generally are getting higher degrees, but it is also true that having kids and a career are not seen as mutually exclusive for women as they once were. Education level aside, only 15% of all women 40 to 44 do not have children, the lowest rate of childlessness in a decade (in the early 2000s it was 20%, in the ’90s it was 18%.)

Despite the recent downturn, childlessness has generally been on the rise since the 1970s. In 1976, only 10% of women in their early 40s had never had children. And the average age at which a woman has her first child has been steadily rising since the 1970s, which of course means that at any one time, there are more women without kids.

The research also shows even if more women are having children, they’re not necessarily having many kids; the four-child family that was popular in the 1970s has now given way to the two-child family. The share of 40-something women with two children has nearly doubled since 1976 (from 24% to 41%) while the share of women with four or more children has declined by almost three quarters (from 40% to 14%.) The percentage of women with one kids has also doubled, from 11% to 22%, while the percentage of women with three kids has stayed roughly the same, about 25%.

Despite the decrease in childlessness among highly educated women, education is still the most accurate predictor for how many children a woman will have. Among mothers without a high school diploma, just 13% have one child, while 26% have four or more. Among moms with a masters degree, 23% have one kid, and just 8% have four. The research also found that family size varied by race: 20% of Hispanic moms and 18% of black moms had four or more children, while 11% of white moms and 10% of Asian moms did.

[Pew]

TIME Family

These Are the 8 Most Challenging Moments for Single Parents

mom-children-walking-woods
Getty Images

xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

I need someone else to confirm to the 3-year-old that no, he cannot wear a bathing suit to daycare in December

xojane

Most everyone would agree that single parenting is a hard gig. Not only is there an emotional aspect to it, but the workload is intense!

As a single mother of two young children with no family support, I can tell you that, aside from all the joy that comes with parenting, it’s easy to become overworked, exhausted, and annoyed. Yes, annoyed. Sometimes being a single parent has nothing to do with the larger struggles of life, sometimes being a single parent is simply just annoying.

#1 There Is No One Else To Blame

Oops. Little Johnny just uttered a swear word. Well I can tell you that he heard that word from… well, I guess there is just me. And it must have been me that told him it was okay to eat off the floor in our house, or that we can sometimes eat cake for breakfast, or me that he heard those song lyrics from. Yep… I’d like to not have to claim all of that, but there’s no one else here.

#2 Go Ask Your… Oh Wait, Never Mind

Send backup. I repeat, send backup because I need someone else to confirm to the 3-year-old that no, he cannot wear a bathing suit to daycare in December.

I mean, I know that he can’t wear that, but he seems convinced that he has just as much insight into the world as I do and I would like a sidekick that reminds him that he is three.

I would like this in the same way that I would like someone else to back me up when I tell him that he needs to stay in bed. The problem with being the only one here is that he and I get into power struggles. There’s not another adult to confirm his 3-year-old status, which is annoying.

I need some reinforcement and yet the only other person here is his short, tiny, sister and she often does not side with me either. Not to mention that everything that they don’t like is my fault.

I get to be the “eat your vegetables, take a bath, clean your room” person all the time. All. The. Time. Sometimes I just want to pass off the “in charge” hat, but nope, it’s just me!

#3 Being Needed In Two Places At Once

It was 2:30 a.m., my son was feverish, my daughter was sleeping, and we had just run out of Tylenol. What were my choices: leave one kid burning up or put them both in the car in the middle of the night and go shopping? This sucks! Just like it sucks when I have no choice but to drop everything I’m doing at work to pick up a sick child or bring a forgotten item.

And some of these situations are even less important, but still just as annoying — like the time both of my children were participating in a Halloween parade at their respective school/daycare and they were both at 3 p.m. Hum, which child do I love more?

Now I know I’m certainly not the only parent (single or otherwise) struggling to manage things like this, but it’s the constant need to have to make other arrangements to accommodate the “I can’t be in two places at once” scenario and never having a “go-to” partner to fill in that starts to wear on you.

#4 Dating

Do I even need to elaborate on this? There is nothing more annoying than trying to date as a single parent. Not only is there the whole “When do I introduce him/her to my kids? Are they worthy of meeting my kids? Will they like my kids? Do they like kids so much that I should be concerned?” and so on and so forth.

Not to mention the small fortune that I invest in our babysitters (or all the favors that I owe my friends) so that we can even go on a date. Or all the dates I’ve have to cancel because one of my children has had a sudden onset of some childhood issue and vomited/spiked a fever/developed an attachment disorder as I was ready to walk out the door. (Or like the time I learned my daughter had lice a couple hours before a date. “Hi, I can’t come… we are hair farming tonight. Is next week cool with you?”).

Yup, dating as a single parent is fun. Or not. I’m gonna go with “not.”

#5 Group Errands

I had just pulled in my driveway after a marathon shopping trip on a Saturday. My infant and toddler were half asleep in their car seats, I was exhausted, but victory was mine because the job had gotten done!

Victory was mine for all of about 10 minutes until I went to put the groceries away and realized that I had forgotten the key item that had spurred the trip. I would have loved nothing more than to be able to ask the children’s father to pick up the thing I needed so that I didn’t have to drag two children back to the store with me, but nope, it’s just me! How annoying is that?

And it’s not just limited to forgotten items, it’s the group doctor visits, group haircuts, group everything! There is nothing that says “annoyance” like bundling up the children to go sit at the DMV for a couple hours.

#6 The Grunt Work

Parenting is not a pretty job. There are dirty diapers, stomach viruses, wiggly teeth, dinnertime disasters, bloody scrapes, and scary injuries. When you are a single mom you don’t get to pass off a task that is too much for you to stomach.

Me? I can deal with the ridiculous amount of fluids that my children seem to excrete, but show me a wiggly tooth and you are going to need to catch me as I faint because I just cannot handle the creep factor of moveable teeth.

You know what else I can’t handle? Foreign objects stuck in places they are not supposed to be stuck, like the time my daughter got a baby carrot lodged in her nose and the pediatrician advised me to “suck it out with your mouth.” Give me a break here. That was a task I would have loved to pass to her father.

#7 Complaining Friends

I should have a checklist of “things I wish you would not talk to me about,” because I swear I would be a better friend if my friends didn’t complain about certain things to me. Now I love my friends, all of them, but there are some things they say that just annoy the heck out of me.

Please don’t complain to me if your husband gets your kids all riled up when he comes home from work — just be happy that they have a father. Also, don’t complain to me when he works late (therefore bringing home money for your family) or when your vacation plans are stressing you out (because in my financially strapped state I can barely afford a trip to Walmart).

Don’t complain to me that little Robby was clinging to you all day because my son is being raised in a daycare and I would love him to have the opportunity to bond to me like that. Certainly don’t complain to me that you are exhausted from spending the day at the zoo, because I spent the day at work, the place your husband went for you.

So yes, this probably makes me a horrible friend, but sometimes my friends’ complaints do nothing but annoy me.

#8 I Just Want To Sleep In

This probably shouldn’t be a category all on its own, but I’m adding this last one in because this is my personal annoyance: I just want one day where I get to sleep in and someone else makes sure my (young) children don’t light the house on fire or go running down the street in their underwear. Is that too much to ask?

So single parenting — it’s totally worth it on a million different levels and I could go on and on about how blessed I am, but this article isn’t about that. It’s about the fact that there are moments that are simply just annoying. Really freaking annoying.

Eden Strong wrote this article for xoJane.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Family

‘Selfish, Shallow and Neurotic’: How the Conversation on Childlessness Got Started

"NON" (National Organization for Non-parents; at Disneyland.
Ralph Crane—The LIFE Picture Collecton/Getty Images Caption from TIME. Child protesting against parenthood; A gift on Non-Father's Day.

The National Organization for Non-Parents started a dialogue that continues today

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that more women in America are childless — or childfree, depending on how you look at it — than at any time since recordkeeping began in the 1970s. And it can seem as if the fewer people have children, the more people want to talk about it: For example, the release of the Census statistics coincides with the recent release of a new essay collection edited by Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.

But, though some of the nuance and context in the conversation about childlessness may be new, the conversation itself is not. Much of today’s discussion of the topic echoes the criticism levied at the National Organization for Non-Parents (NON), a group founded in 1972 to promote the childfree lifestyle.

The organization, which later changed its name to the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood, formed in response to a “pronatalist” culture that stigmatized childless couples. As TIME wrote in 1972, “the cultural bias against childless couples is so strong that husbands and wives cannot choose non-parenthood freely; they know they will be branded selfish, shallow and neurotic.”

NON’s 400 members also promoted the benefits of the childfree existence, as TIME explained:

All of the members, even the parents among them, are committed to childlessness as a way of creating ‘social space.’ That means ‘a combination of time, money and energy’ that can be used to conserve planetary resources, beat the high cost of living and free husbands and wives for political activism and the pursuit of free life-styles.

That same year, LIFE Magazine profiled the organization’s executive director, Shirley Radl, a mother of two then at work on a book titled Mother’s Day Is Over. Radl lamented the “Big Lie” she and her husband had fallen for, succumbing to friends’ judgment of their lives as “hedonistic, meaningless.” Her words have not gone stale in the intervening decades:

We don’t tell others what jobs to take, whom they should marry, where to vacation. It’s bad manners to ask how much money they make. Yet others’ breeding habits, if they’re childless, are considered fair game. The couples with children, who are miserable, don’t hesitate to urge others to follow their examples.

Read TIME’s 2013 cover story on childlessness, here in the TIME archives: The Childfree Life

TIME motherhood

Egyptian Woman Who Lived as a Man to Find Work Honored with Motherhood Award

Sisa Abu Daooh, a woman who passed for a man for decades while working as a shoeshine, in Luxor, Egypt, on March 25, 2015.
Bryan Denton–The New York Times/Redux Sisa Abu Daooh, a woman who passed for a man for decades while working as a shoeshine, in Luxor, Egypt, on March 25, 2015.

Sisa Abu Daooh dressed as a man for 42 years

An Egyptian woman who was forced to live as a man in order to support her daughter was recently awarded the country’s highest award for motherhood.

Sisa Abu Daooh has been dressing as a man for 42 years in order to find work after her husband died. “I worked in Aswan wearing pants and a galabeya,” she told the New York Times. “If I hadn’t, no one would have let me work.”

Daooh was forced to dress as a man not as an expression of gender identity, but because otherwise she would have been unable to find work. In the early 1970s, when her husband’s death left Daooh and her daughter destitute, it was extremely difficult for women to find paid work. For seven years, she worked as a manual laborer making less than a dollar a day before finding less physically demanding work. She now works as a shoe-shiner.

When Daooh’s husband died, it was almost unheard of for Egyptian women to work, but even today, very few Egyptian women participate in the labor force—only 26%, compared to 79% of men, according to the World Economic Forum. If women and men participated equally, Egypt’s GDP would increase by 34%, according to an analysis conducted by the Clinton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Between the lack of economic opportunity, the prevalence of female genital mutilation, and the near-universal experience sexual harassment (over 99% of women say they’ve been harassed,) Thompson-Reuters voted Egypt the worst place in the Arab world to be a woman.

[h/t New York Times]

TIME

Sheryl Sandberg Wants Men to Lean In, Too

492690349
Emely—Getty Images/Cultura RF Young girl dangling from her fathers arm

The new #LeanInTogether initiative promotes equality at work and at home

The latest Lean In initiative isn’t about women at work — it’s about men.

In the spirit of #HeForShe, Sheryl Sandberg and her team launched Lean In Together, a new campaign designed to help men promote gender equality at home and at work. It involves a partnership with NBA and WNBA stars, and includes specific tips for how men can Lean In, too.

They’ve also produced a short video with Makers, about how famous women like Hillary Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were able to achieve partly because of support from the men in their lives. As Sandberg puts it, “being a parent’s not a full-time job for a woman and a part-time job for a man.”

Here are the #LeanInTogether tips for how men can Lean In at home:

1) Be a 50/50 partner, by equally sharing household duties.

2) Be an active father, even if you’re not perfect — kids with active dads have better self esteem.

3) Close the wage gap at home, by not valuing chores done by boys (like taking out the trash) more than chores done by girls.

4) Challenge gender stereotypes, by making sure your kids play with diverse toys and see diverse characters in books and movies

5) Help your daughter lead. Not calling her “bossy” is a start — also encourage her to be assertive in other ways, like introducing herself to people.

6) Don’t tell your son to “man up,” which can be just as damaging as calling a girl “bossy.”

There are also some tips for Leaning In at work in a way that supports your female colleagues — check them out here.

Read next: More Sex—and 7 Other Benefits for Men who Help Out at Home

 

TIME Careers & Workplace

Why We Need More Mothers at Work

businesswoman-briefcase-baby-stroller
Getty Images

I wish I had known five years ago, as a young, childless manager, that mothers are the people you need on your team

I still am embarrassed by this memory. Five years ago I walked into an office on the twenty-fifth floor of the Manhattan headquarters of Time Inc. (which owns Fortune.) I was there to meet with Time.com’s then-managing editor and pitch a partnership idea, but once I took a seat and surveyed the endless photos of her small children spread across the airy space, I decided this editor was too much of a mother to follow up on the idea.

I still went through with my proposal, but I walked out sure I would never talk to her again. She wasn’t the first and only mother whose work ethic I silently slandered. As a manager at The Huffington Post and then The Washington Post in my mid-twenties, I committed a long list of infractions against mothers or said nothing while I saw others do the same.

  • I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her “commitment” even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day.
  • I didn’t disagree when another female editor said we should hurry up and fire another woman before she “got pregnant.”
  • I sat in a job interview where a male boss grilled a mother of three and asked her, “How in the world are you going to be able to commit to this job and all your kids at the same time?” I didn’t give her any visual encouragement when the mother – who was a top cable news producer at the time – looked at him and said, “Believe it or not, I like being away from my kids during the workday… just like you.”
  • I scheduled last minute meetings at 4:30pm all of the time. It didn’t dawn on me that parents might need to pick up their kids at daycare. I was obsessed with the idea of showing my commitment to the job by staying in the office “late” even though I wouldn’t start working until 10:30am while parents would come in at 8:30am.

For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t realize this – or how horrible I’d been – until five years later, when I gave birth to a daughter of my own.

Within her first week, I became consumed by the idea that my career was over. It was almost as if my former self was telling me I was worthless because I wouldn’t be able to continue sitting in an office for 10 hours a day. And I certainly wouldn’t be able to get drinks at the last minute.

I was now a woman with two choices: go back to work like before and never see my baby, or pull back on my hours and give up the career I’d built over the last ten years. When I looked at my little girl, I knew I didn’t want her to feel trapped like me.

I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, thinking it would motivate me. It only depressed me more. To me, the message was clear: put up with the choices made by a male-dominated work culture if you want to succeed. I re-read Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece on “Why Women Can’t Have It All.” It just painted another reality that I had contributed to until it became my own problem.

While I was on maternity leave from NowThis News (a startup funded by members of The Huffington Post team), still wrestling with these thoughts, I was approached by my now co-founder, Milena Berry. She told me she had an idea to launch a company that would match women in technical positions they could do from home. I decided to quit my job and leave journalism, realizing this startup had enormous potential for the one billion women entering the workforce over the next ten years.

If the developer placements worked, then other fields might follow. By enabling women to work from home, women could be valued for their productivity and not time spent sitting in an office or at a bar bonding afterwards. Mothers could have a third option that would allow them to either remain in the workforce or be a part of it even from areas with few job options.

All the tools exist for remote work – Slack, Jira, Skype, Trello, Google Docs. Research shows remote workers can be more productive. Furthermore, millennials – with or without kids – want that flexibility, a Harvard study found.

With the help of an awesome team that’s 50 percent moms from around the world, Milena and I are building PowerToFly around our lives as mothers. We’ve processed over a million dollars in paychecks for women who work from home across five continents and that number is growing fast. The stories we hear are thrilling.

Before we found Nedda, our CTO, she was commuting to London from her home in Bulgaria every week. Nedda’s daughter would hide in her suitcase on Sunday nights in an attempt to be with her mother during the week. Now she gets picked up from kindergarten by her mom everyday. Nedda traded a very expensive 10-hour weekly commute (not including time on the London tube) for a 30-minute walk with her child each afternoon.

I wish I had known five years ago, as a young, childless manager, that mothers are the people you need on your team. There’s a saying that “if you want something done then ask a busy person to do it.” That’s exactly why I like working with mothers now.

Moms tell me when a project can be done and they give me very advanced notice when they have to take time off work. If they work from home, it doesn’t matter if a kid gets sick. Yes, they might not be able to Skype with me as often through that day, but they can still be productive because they can work from home while keeping an eye on their child. (And, like me, many have childcare. There’s no way you can work from home without support, usually from another woman.) Moms work hard to meet deadlines because they have a powerful motivation – they want to be sure they can make dinner, pick a child up from school, and yes, get to the gym for themselves.

But, I know there are still a lot of people like my 28-year-old self – they undervalue mothers’ contributions because they count hours logged in the office and not actual work. Most mothers lose if that’s the barometer for productivity.

It’s time to break that cycle, and it starts with the people doing the hiring. The way I acted in my twenties had a lot to do with denial. If I didn’t embrace or recognize the mothers on my team, then I didn’t have to think about what my future would be like. I see the same behavior in young women I talk to who are in charge of hiring, especially in the tech space. They are hard liners – and passionate lecturers – about women being in the office so they can be part of the company’s “culture”.

They don’t realize how that “culture” pushes women out because it’s too often set up around how men bond. Many of these young women are just toe-ing the company line. I don’t begrudge them. I feel sorry for them.

They’re hurting their future selves. Just like I did.

These women can help pave the path for their future selves if they start acting like allies rather than deniers. Instead of just smiling and saying you’re sorry that a mom can’t join for office drinks, ask her if she’d rather do lunch. If there’s a comment you over hear that disparages a mother because she wasn’t at her desk at 7pm, then speak up and point out that she was their at 8:30am, or completely available on Skype of Slack at 7pm.

There are so many ways we can support each other as women, but it starts with the just recognizing that we’re all in different positions at different times in our lives.

One thing is clear. Motherhood is the future for most women. Over 80 percent of us will become mothers by the age of 44, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So embrace your future and support it at work!

Now I know who I am. I’m a mother who can manage a large team from my home office or on a business trip, raise money, and build a culture for women to succeed. I’ve never been more productive, satisfied and excited about my future and my daughter’s. I wish I had recognized this years ago.

For that, I’m sorry to all the mothers I used to work with. Which brings me back to that managing editor I dissed at Time. Her name is Cathy and she has three kids. The deal never went through for a variety of reasons that included editorial fit, but we started talking six months ago. Cathy recently joined PowerToFly as our Executive Editor. She has taught me a lot about how to be more productive than I was before motherhood. I’m now looking for more Cathys to join PowerToFly because I know they can manage households, multiple schedules and very high business goals.

Katharine Zaleski is the Cofounder and President of PowerToFly, the first global platform matching women in highly skilled positions across tech and digital that they can do from home, or in an office, if they choose.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME Advertising

This Ad Perfectly Captures the Horrors of New Motherhood

It's also great birth control

HelloFlo doesn’t just tackle first periods — it’s also breaking into the mom market.

The women’s health company, which scored a viral hit last year with an ad about a young girl’s “first moon party,” is back with a new campaign. In this ad, a new mom takes a break from breastfeeding and changing diapers to perform a musical about how much it sucks to have a tiny baby. “How could I let another woman walk through the terrifying abyss of motherhood without telling her the things I’d seen?” she says.

“For what it’s worth: There’s no laughter after after-birth,” she sings in a full-on Broadway style belt.

When asked if she’s worried about the success of her musical, she replies: “I have suction cups attached to my nipples, squeezing milk out of my rock-hard boobs. I fear nothing.” Once she sees HelloFlo’s new mom kit — which includes essentials like nipple cream, breast pads, lotion and Luna bars — she fears it’s so useful, it will make her musical obsolete. Until she uses it to bribe everyone to see her show.

If you’re a mom, you’ll love this. If you’re not a mom yet, it might scare you off for good.

Read next: This Video Shows Why Being a Mom Is the Hardest Job Out There

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Pregnancy

Kate Winslet on Losing Baby Weight: ‘I’d Rather Be Well-Fed and Happy’

Actress Kate Winslet attends the "A Little Chaos" premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13, 2014.
Philip Cheung—Getty Images Actress Kate Winslet attends the "A Little Chaos" premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13, 2014.

"I so didn't want to be one of those 'Oh, wow, she's back in shape after 12 weeks' women"

Kate Winslet isn’t looking for perfection in life – in fact, far from it.

In an interview with the U.K.’s Harper’s Bazaar, the Oscar-winning actress talks about raising her three children during emotionally difficult times.

“I think it’s very important to teach your children to struggle on some level,” Winslet, 39, says in the publication’s March cover story. “I wouldn’t change a thing. Even all the bad bits. It doesn’t matter how [bad] times have been, they all matter, because those things shape who you are.”

A busy mom to three children – daughter Mia, 14, from her first marriage to Jim Threapleton; son Joe, 11, from her second marriage to director Sam Mendes; and 15-month-old son Bear with her current husband, Ned RocknRoll – Winslet has neither the time nor inclination to indulge in body-conscious thoughts or post-baby diets.

“I so didn’t want to be one of those ‘Oh, wow, she’s back in shape after 12 weeks’ women,” said actress, now based in rural Sussex in the U.K. “When I read things like that, I just think, ‘Oh, for f—‘s sake, that’s actually impossible.'”

Winslet – who can be seen onscreen next month in Insurgent – is more likely to be found choosing new floor tiles and organizing a fundraiser for Mia’s school than she is dieting.

“I want to keep my health and my sanity and be well fed and happy,” she says. “My body will never go back to what it was and I wouldn’t expect it to after three babies.”

This article originally appeared on People.com.

TIME Family

How Workplaces Can Combat Pregnancy Discrimination

businesswoman-baby-carriage
Getty Images

Having a baby shouldn't put Americans' jobs at risk

As a mother of a young child today, I know much has changed for mothers in the workforce since my mother and her mother had children. But there’s one thread that ties our narratives together – a subject that’s too often fleeting in the broader discussion of working moms: the discrimination women experience during pregnancy, and after they return to work.

Every year, thousands of women file charges against employers for acts of pregnancy discrimination. In fact, charges of pregnancy discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) actually increased by 71 percent between 1992 and 2011.

What does pregnancy discrimination look like, exactly? It occurs when an employer treats a job applicant or an employee unfavorably due to her pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. It could involve refusing to hire or promote a qualified individual because she is pregnant, firing a woman because she missed a few days of work to give birth, or forcing a pregnant employee to take unpaid leave. Sure, this behavior hurts pregnant women and their families, but it also hurts employers: In addition to breaking the law, these companies may be failing to retain some of their most highly qualified employees – losing out on their skills and productivity.

The bottom line is that women comprise a significant proportion of the nation’s talent pool, and when their contributions are constrained by patronizing and outmoded notions of what motherhood should look like (even well-intentioned ones), our workforce, our economy and our families suffer. At present, women serve as the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households. In other words, women’s sustained participation in the labor force is critical to the economic security and stability of millions of individual families.

And yet, here we are in 2015, and some employers still view child-bearing and employment as mutually exclusive activities. Just last year, the EEOC announced a $30,000 settlement to a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit a woman brought against her former employer, Triple T Foods in Arkansas, which fired her the day she announced she was pregnant. This is only one example of the $3.5 million the EEOC recouped in damages for victims of pregnancy discrimination between 2011 and 2014.

We have a long way to go. But we’ve made progress in some ways. For example, just a generation ago, many women left the workplace when they became visibly pregnant. In the 1960s, almost half of women who worked during their first pregnancy left the workforce by the time they were about 6 months pregnant. Today, only about 12 percent do.

And we’re certainly better off than we were. In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Muller v. Oregon, upheld a state statute restricting the number of hours per day a female employee could work and thereby set a precedent for paternalistic laws intended to “protect” women from the hazards and indignities of the workplace. While the Court acknowledged that the statute treated workers differently on the basis of sex, it also found that that a woman’s “physical structure” and “maternal functions” justified such unequal treatment.

Although the precedent established in Muller had unraveled by the late twentieth century and its discriminatory assumptions are no longer formally codified in law, they still permeate the cultural expectations surrounding women—especially pregnant women—in the workplace. These expectations can affect women even before they enter the workplace. Pregnant women face discrimination at job interviews and face much greater discrimination than other workers with short-term disabilities who may need minimal accommodations. For example, in a survey funded by the W.K Kellogg Foundation, 69 percent of respondents who reported being denied a pregnancy-related accommodation felt that their employers had honored similar requests from coworkers with other limitations or disabilities.

Knowing that this culture exists can and often does discourage women from requesting accommodations from or disclosing her pregnancy to her supervisor. In the same survey, more than half of respondents reported needing scheduling accommodations for prenatal visits and the like, but more than a quarter reported failing to request such an accommodation. That’s a shame, because the truth is that employers should be able to accommodate these requests with minimal expense and inconvenience.

How do we ensure that women who work during pregnancy are treated equitably, and begin to break down this discriminatory culture? That requires a combination of more progressive employer policies coupled with a set of robust legal and regulatory protections. At the federal level, women are protected by laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but there is more we can do.

In June, at the White House Summit on Working Families, President Obama called for federal legislation that supports pregnant workers. Some states like Delaware and Illinois have taken the lead and passed their own versions of the proposed federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

The EEOC has stepped up, too, releasing new enforcement guidance last year to clarify the applications of the PDA and the ADA, as they apply to pregnant workers. This guidance “requires that employers treat women affected by pregnancy or related medical conditions the same way they treat non-pregnant applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.” This means that employers have to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers if they also make such accommodations for other employees who have a temporary disability. The EEOC’s notice also includes women who undergo fertility treatments, are nursing mothers, or are discriminated against based on stereotypes and assumptions about motherhood.

Outside of government, workplaces across the nation are already teeming with examples of managers and employees alike who are dismantling outdated assumptions about the needs and abilities of pregnant workers, as well as the responsibilities of the employers who hire them. Combining statutory and regulatory protections with voluntary actions by employers can amplify this groundswell of progress. From the classroom to the board room to the factory floor, we see daily evidence of the powerful alignment of workplace policy, statutory protections and individual determination in ensuring that women can, in fact, do and be just about anything.

Building a workplace culture that aligns with the demographic realities of today’s labor force allows employers not only to stay on the right side of the law, but, as a growing body of evidence suggests, shows that employers can still do well with their bottom line by treating all of their workers fairly. After all, support for pregnant workers doesn’t simply benefit this generation of workers; it’s an investment in generations to come.

Latifa Lyles is the Director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com