A version of this piece was originally published by ThinkProgress.
In one of the first scenes in Bad Moms, the PTA president’s tone drips with judgment as she asks the lead character about her decision to both work and raise her kids. “I don’t know how you do it. How do you leave your kids all day? You’re so strong.”
It’s a scene many working mothers will recognize. Despite being a comedy, Bad Moms captures the tightrope working mothers are stuck on, told -- either subtly or overtly – that they’re neither good moms nor good employees. The movie also provides a healthy dose of perspective about what navigating the workplace can look like for moms.
In Bad Moms, Mila Kunis plays Amy, an overworked sales executive and the mother of two pre-teens. Over the course of the movie, mean girl mom Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) escalates from passive aggressive to outright hostile when Amy pushes back on unrealistic expectations of school moms and threatens Gwendolyn’s role as PTA president.
There has been some criticism that the male writer-director duo missed the mark on the experience of working moms. But there’s also a lot the movie gets right about what work looks like for working moms like Amy.
Economic realities are increasing the need for mothers to work, while society pressures them to demonstrate perfect Pinterest-worthy parenting. What it means to be a good mom (always there for your kid) often contradicts what it means to be a good employee (putting work first). In addition to having their parenting skills questioned, working mothers face mommy bias, where they are seen as less competent and committed than their colleagues.
Here are some of the things Bad Moms got right:
Holding boundaries is crucial.
After describing a dream in wildly inappropriate, HR complaint-worthy detail, Amy’s slacker boss, Dale, adds a new role to Amy’s responsibilities. When she explains that she doesn’t have the bandwidth because she works three days per week, he responds, “What? Since when? You’re here every day.” After telling him she’s been part time for six years, she counters, “If you want me to work more, you should pay me to do that.”
Most employers will let you work as many hours as you’re willing to -- your boss is unlikely to tell you to stop giving them free labor. Certainly, some roles have phases when longer hours are required, but if it’s happening consistently consider speaking up. Especially if you’re good at what you do, you’ll likely continue to be given increasing responsibilities until you hold a boundary.
Women are often held to a higher standard, which is bullshit but important to know.
After a confrontation about bake sale ingredients pushes her over the top, Amy embraces being a bad mom and a bad employee, which includes not going to work for two weeks. Amy is fired. Her boss Dale -- the man who previously suggested she leave work to join him for roller skating at 9 a.m. -- has decided she’s not contributing sufficiently.
Amy acknowledges that she’s been slacking a bit, but reminds Dale that her assistant took two weeks off when Jon Snow died on Game of Thrones. (Dale says that everyone in the office did but Amy.) For six years, she exceeded office expectations and logged countless extra hours, but the minute she demonstrated behavior similar to her colleagues, her commitment was questioned.
The strongest trigger for bias toward women is motherhood, according to the book What Works for Women at Work. While not showing up for two weeks straight may have played a role in Amy getting fired, her treatment follows a pattern within the research about working moms. So called “leniency bias” refers to situations when rules are applied more leniently to people in the “in group” (in this case, Jon Snow-loving roller skaters) than folks in the “out group” (the Amys of the world).
In many work environments, “time becomes a proxy for dedication and excellence,” according to sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein. When employers put a premium on face time over productivity, women with familial responsibilities are at a disadvantage, especially those like Amy who work part time.
To add insult to injury, it’s not just about putting face time in during the work day. Working moms can also face sanctions for opting out of office bonding activities.
As Katharine Zaleski wrote in her widely shared piece "Female company president: 'I'm sorry to all the mothers I worked with’”:
“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.”
Zaleski goes on to write that employers often “don’t realize how that ‘culture’ pushes women out because it’s too often set up around how men bond.”
Was Amy fired for not showing up or for not going roller skating? Probably both.
Women don’t suck at negotiations.
Ultimately, Amy’s former company flounders without her. In a moment of classic cinematic wish-fulfillment, Dale calls begging her to return. Recently rededicated to motherhood, Amy seizes the opportunity and negotiates her ideal compensation package -- doubling her pay, getting approval to work from home two days a week, and filling out her team with three women of her choice who are “over the age of 25.” While that last element is of questionable legality, the gist is that over the course of the movie, Amy figured out what she wanted her work and personal life to look like and then advocated for it.
Getting fired gave Amy the chance to redefine her professional goals and plenty of leverage to act on them. In the real world, while it’d be nice for your former employer to call groveling and willing to give you anything to return, it’s unlikely.
What you can do is consider what your ideal work life looks like. What combination of salary, hours, flexibility, project type, and autonomy, will make you happiest? Some women thrive on the structure of a traditional 9-5 schedule, with flexibility for their kids’ doctor’s appointments as needed. Others want to be part-time or become entrepreneurs or freelancers. Regardless of the field, among my clients, those who have achieved the greatest success are those who do the self-reflection in advance and then pursue jobs that align with their goals.
This can be easier said than done, especially when women are constantly told they’re bad negotiators and that they’ll see negative consequences if they try (because asking for what you want isn’t very ladylike). In practice, there are strategies many women use naturally that make them strong negotiators who avoid sanctions.
It’s maddening that many working women have to navigate around bias at work while often taking on more of the childrearing responsibilities at home. But the reality is that women have to operate within the biased system as it exists today, while simultaneously -- if we choose -- trying to fix it.
The premise of Bad Moms is that mothers have to stop expecting perfection in themselves and in their peers. And then when, invariably, everything doesn’t go as planned, reign in the judgment.
As Kunis told Entertainment Weekly, “You know what? F— Pinterest. Everything looks perfect in a photograph. Let’s lift the veil on motherhood!” While we’re at it, let’s lift the veil and have real conversations with employers about how to make work work for women.