When Catherine Lockinger landed a job at IBM in 2018, it felt like she was watching her future career unfold before her. After a five-year stint in the art world, Lockinger had pivoted to product management and found her stride in consulting roles before being recruited by IBM. This job would give Lockinger the opportunity to build her own team and tackle a compelling business problem. But that wasn’t the only appeal. “I was really excited about going into a company that’s not consulting because I wouldn’t be traveling so much,” she says. “And they have an excellent parental leave policy.”
Working at IBM exceeded even her high expectations, and Lockinger thrived in her role. “I love working—period, full stop, for better or worse,” she says. In May 2020, she gave birth to twins, and worked up until the night before her delivery. As she started maternity leave, Lockinger received a special equity award—a recognition that she was a high performer. “Honestly [I was] looking forward to a long time at IBM,” she says. “My colleagues from Deloitte went off to Amazon and these other companies, and I remember saying to them, ‘Amazon wishes they were IBM. They’ve been around [for] 100 years; you hope to be this company.’ And there’s a lot of opportunities [at] a 400,000 person company. There’s anywhere you could go in your career there if you do well.”
All that seemed to change five months later, as she was gearing up to return to work. Lockinger had been informed that her boss was leaving IBM, but she was assured that her job was safe and that she would be moved under a different manager. Then, one week before she was slated to return to work, Lockinger learned that her position had been filled—and that her replacement would remain in the job even after her leave was over. The explanation (which Lockinger says is “seared onto [her] brain”) was that the business couldn’t wait for her. “You can imagine how devastating that was to someone who loved working,” she says, noting that her leave was at the height of the pandemic. “I felt trapped in my apartment with babies for five months. [I was] ready to go back.”
When Lockinger returned to work, she was repeatedly told that the company would find a place for her, with her new boss even suggesting that she could work part-time or take things slower to focus on her kids. (Other colleagues echoed those sentiments, she says, urging her to spend time with her kids or making assumptions that her career was now less of a priority.) Before long, Lockinger had lost several direct reports, and her responsibilities had been scaled back. She was also moved under a more junior manager and—to add insult to injury—was asked to train the person who had taken over her role. (IBM did not respond to a request for comment.)
Lockinger describes much of this experience as “benevolent discrimination,” a more insidious form of workplace discrimination that is all too common, particularly as it relates to pregnancy or motherhood. (The term is cited in research that focuses on sexism and gender-based discrimination but also appears as a criticism of diversity initiatives.) In these cases—which often manifest as gender-based discrimination but can also fuel ageism or ableism in the workplace—an employer might think they’re doing what’s right for their employee. “The concept is very established,” says employment lawyer Brian Heller, who is representing Lockinger in a discrimination lawsuit against IBM. “Discrimination can start out with the person doing it as kindness, and that’s where it’s benevolent. The action is detrimental to the employee and harmful, but the person who’s doing the discrimination acts like it’s a favor, and may even believe that.”
The rationale for benevolent discrimination often differs from that of more overt workplace discrimination. “There are different motivations for discrimination,” Heller says. “Sometimes it could be hostility towards people in that protected category. Or it could be a genuine belief that this type of person is not capable of doing this job, and that it’s not good for them to do it. It could be a belief that I’m protecting this person from themselves—that this new mother is taking on too much responsibility, so I’m going to protect her from overextending herself.”
When it comes to gender-based discrimination, even employers that claim to care about equity and inclusion may find they inadvertently enable benevolent sexism. After surveying more than 7,000 men across 13 countries, Catalyst—a nonprofit research organization focused on workplace equity—found that a majority of men who said they were committed to fighting workplace sexism were likely to make comments like “I would ask my colleague to be more protective of women,” or “I would comment that women are easier to deal with than men.” In fact, many of them reported that they would likely make those remarks in an effort to interrupt or respond to hostile, overt sexism from colleagues. Catalyst’s findings also indicated that men who were more senior in their organization were actually more likely to engage in benevolent sexism.
“It can be difficult to explain to folks why this is a bad thing,” says Sarah DiMuccio, a director of research for Catalyst’s Men Advocating Real Change initiative. “It’s almost like trying to explain why chivalry is outdated.” One reason for that is that it’s more socially acceptable to make those remarks, since the gender norms and cultural expectations underpinning them are so deeply embedded in society.
“I think we’re just now starting to see the insidiousness of the benevolent type [of sexism],” DiMuccio says. “And [it] can be harmful to men as well, especially men who want to take off more time to be with their kids or feel like they’re pressured into taking more dangerous or difficult roles because that’s what is expected of men.” While Lockinger was struggling to find her place at IBM after maternity leave, a male peer who was also a new parent received a promotion. When she told him about her situation, he explained that he hadn’t taken all of his parental leave to ensure he would be promoted. “I remember hearing that and thinking, ‘well, that’s a choice you have,’” Lockinger says. “I had a C section. I was breastfeeding twins. I did not have the choice.”
Employers have grown more aware of this type of gender bias in recent years, and even more so as the pandemic exposed the disproportionate burden women often shoulder as caregivers. It’s also true that there has been a steady increase in the number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the EEOC and, according to Bloomberg, an uptick in lawsuits alleging pregnancy bias in the workplace. The nature of this discrimination, however, has remained fairly consistent, according to Heller: A new mother may get passed over for a promotion or pulled off of more high-profile projects. “Catherine’s case is emblematic of what’s going on. It’s not an outlier,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and I would say that this type of discrimination has not changed throughout that time, and that it’s remained pretty consistent.”
It’s also possible that the very awareness that might push a company to introduce caregiver benefits or flexible working hours could, in some instances, engender benevolent sexism. “There’s this perception out there that pregnancy discrimination doesn’t happen much anymore, because people are more educated about it, and people are more open and accepting of women taking pregnancy leave,” Heller says. “And that’s really where the benevolent discrimination comes into play.” But there’s a fine line between offering support to parents and making assumptions about what they might need, largely on the basis of gender.
Companies often think they’re doing the right thing when they engage in benevolent discrimination, Heller points out. But more often than not, what begins as more subtle discrimination snowballs into explicit retaliation or more serious repercussions that ultimately cause harm to workers like Lockinger. In early 2021, after eight months of pleading her case to HR and trying to find another role within IBM, Lockinger had to acknowledge that the future she had imagined for herself was no longer viable. She had been repeatedly told that her managers would find an appropriate place for her in the organization, to no avail. When she pressed the issue and put her concerns into writing, Lockinger claims she was penalized in her year-end performance review and told that she should have “created” a role for herself. By May 2021, she decided it was time to resign.
“There’s no denying that my career has taken a blow,” she says. “I have zero doubt that had I not had babies, I would be a director, if not a VP, and it’s going to take me a minute to get back to that. I’m hoping that I can do that at a company that truly values humans—more so than the business that couldn’t wait.”
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