Did you ever notice that the official spelling of this commemorative holiday is the singular possessive “Mother’s Day” and not the plural “Mothers’ Day” as it is usually celebrated? When you hear proclamations that we are participating in a day celebrating motherhood, please join me in a resounding chorus of “Nope! It’s all about MY mother!” Researching the topic online didn’t have to go any further than Wikipedia to learn that although it is celebrated in some form in almost every country it is not really a global holiday. The occasion as practiced in the US is not tied to any worldwide tradition, but it is far from being just another “Hallmark Holiday.” In 1912, Anna Jarvis trademarked the phrase “Mother’s Day” and was very specific about the location of the apostrophe. It was intended for each family to honor their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world. I love this quote attributed to her: “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. “ She spent much of the later years of her life campaigning against the very holiday she created because it had become so commercial.
So what does all this have to do with HR? My mother was a negotiator, mediator, peacemaker and prophet. She didn’t work in HR and chances are that yours probably didn’t either. Since our attitudes in the workplace and beyond are influenced by our innermost personal feelings, the fact that we all had a mother gives us all something in common. While specific memories may be different, we share the common concept that our life began with our mother. I guess it should also be noted that when women attain the honor of being called “Mom” they don’t automatically gain sainthood. In fact, some mothers fail miserably, yet somehow there is still a mother-child bond that lies much deeper than any actions could erase. Civilized society recognizes the special status of motherhood which possibly comes from this collective emotion of people with mothers. The culture of the workplace is a mirror of the society which surrounds it and that places everybody’s mother at the focal point of company policies, such as those for maternity benefits and nursing mothers. In the US, forty-four states have laws specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private place. Twenty-four have laws regarding breastfeeding in the workplace. 
Well, our deference to mother is a good theory, but proving that to be fact is a little difficult to do. Research suggests that actual attitudes tend to differ. A recent article  in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a study conducted at Montana State University  in which several experiments tested the attitudes toward breastfeeding with 60 undergraduate students. Their opinions were totally subjective based on interviewing women in four different groupings. Surprisingly, based on perception alone, the students rated the “breastfeeding” woman lowest of the four groups on overall competence, workplace capabilities, math ability, and also whether they would hire her. This is not a new phenomenon. In 2005 Ohio State researchers conducted a study  in which young adults held mothers to stricter employment standards than childless women. While parents in general were judged as less committed to the job, fathers were held to lower standards than both women in general and childless men. While these results may be shocking and contrary to our cultural intuition, they do point out that in the workplace HR has an important job to be an advocate for the rights of mothers and not allow even the most benign unconscious bias have an influence over pay, training or promotion. Such disparate treatment is not just a woman’s issue it impacts all of us who have had a mother.
My mother would have been a great HR leader. I owe my ability to work in HR or in any other capacity to my parents: Mom shared with me her positive attitude about life and the faith that “everything always works out for the best” if you will just make it happen; Dad was an example of ultimate work ethic, constant learning and family values. While it probably isn’t genetic, I was given gifts that are priceless. Thanks, Mom! I miss you every Mother’s Day but you are truly with me every day. And I’m sorry I didn’t write or call more often.
National Conference of State Legislatures, “Breastfeeding Laws” September 2010 http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=14389
The Wall Street Journal, “Breastfeeding Mothers Viewed as Incompetent” April 21, 2011 http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/21/breastfeeding-women-viewed-as-incompetent/
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, “Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed” March 18, 2011 http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/03/18/0146167211401629.abstract
Ohio State Research News, “Mothers In the Workplace Held to Stricter Standards” 1/4/2005, http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/genster.htm