In a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, Kate Weisshaar, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined how employers respond to applications from candidates who have taken time away from work to stay at home with their children, compared to those who are currently employed or had recently been laid off. To do so, she submitted 3,374 fictitious résumés to job listings in 50 American cities, representing these three types of applicants, and measured how many were called back for interviews or more information. Weisshaar’s findings, which she discussed at the Harvard Business Review last week, suggest a significant bias among employers against parents who take career breaks to raise children:
The results show just how heavily parents reentering the workforce are penalized for their career gap: 15.3% of the employed mothers, 9.7% of the unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers received a callback. The results were similar for fathers. While 14.6% of the employed fathers and 8.8% of unemployed fathers received a callback, only 5.4% of stay-at-home fathers did.
Put simply, stay-at-home parents were about half as likely to get a callback as unemployed parents and only one-third as likely as employed parents.
To better understand this apparent bias against stay-at-home parents, Weisshaar also conducted a national survey in which respondents were asked to evaluate fictitious résumés that differed only in whether the applicant was continuously employed, had been laid off, or had taken time off to take care of children. Respondents, she found, “viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job, and—the biggest penalty—less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants.”
Weisshaar’s study underscores how becoming a parent and sacrificing full-time employment to raise children can hold professionals back in their careers. This is especially true of women, who remain more likely than men to become stay-at-home parents and who also risk being discriminated against during pregnancy. The expectation that mothers will pause their careers and play a primary parenting role while fathers continue to work means that mothers lose out on raises and promotions, which in some fields depend significantly on continuous employment and experience. Furthermore, as this study shows, being a parent can make it harder to re-enter the workforce.
This “motherhood penalty” has been identified in several studies over the past few years as a major contributor to the gender pay gap. Even when mothers don’t exit the workforce to take care of their children, temporarily shifting to part-time work also slows down their career progression and has a huge impact on their lifetime earning potential.
The motherhood penalty is one of the main reasons why advocates of gender equality urge employers to offer paid parental leave to both mothers and fathers, in the interests of both encouraging parents to share child care responsibilities more evenly and combating the stigma attached to balancing work and family obligations. While mothers bear the brunt of this stigma and pay the heaviest penalties, fathers also fear being seen as less committed to their work if they make time for family obligations. Weisshaar’s findings drive home the extent to which both mothers and fathers are penalized for balancing the work they do in their careers with the no less valuable work of being a parent.