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Maternal Bodies as Taboo at Work

This paper contributes new perspectives to studies on women in management, proposing the concept of the “maternal” (or reproductive) female body as a different explanation for why women are underrepresented at high levels in organizations. It argues that assessments of capability among senior-level women may focus primarily on their potential (or actual) maternity rather than on performance. As a result, such women are often excluded from prestigious assignments. First, the paper observes hidden tendencies, within higher echelons at work, to classify maternal bodies as taboo. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, the paper notes how maternal bodies among senior-women may be identified as “social pollutants” and a danger to productivity (Douglas, 1966). Second, the paper suggests how the marginalizing of senior-level women relates to medicalization of maternal bodies, which are described as governed by fluctuating hormones throughout and beyond the reproductive years. Such medical descriptions spill over into organizational contexts, and senior-women are treated as lacking competence to make rational judgments. The paper suggests that further research is required to explore deeply ingrained attitudes that associate maternal bodies with lowered cognition.


from AMP by Caroline Gatrell, Cary L. Cooper, CBE, and Ellen Ernst Kossek

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