Motherhood and Careers

Via Political Animal and MoJo, I learned about some recent research about how motherhood affects careers. It seems like a common, though anecdotal, observation that women with kids have to pay a penalty in their careers. People usually think that mothers are not as serious in their careers as non-mothers (fathers or childless people). This assumption is there despite any objective facts about a specific person. This preliminary research1 bears out this observation about irrational attitudes. Here is the abstract:

Survey research finds that mothers suffer a substantial per-child wage penalty that is not explained by human capital or occupational factors (Budig and England 2001; Anderson, Binder and Krause 2003). Despite clear documentation of this pattern, the causal mechanism producing it remains elusive because existing research has not been able to distinguish between productivity and discrimination explanations for the motherhood wage penalty. Drawing on status characteristics theory and the literature on the cultural contradictions of motherhood, we suggest that status-based discrimination may be an important factor. To evaluate this argument, we conducted a laboratory experiment in which participants evaluated application materials for a pair of same race, same gender, ostensibly real job applicants who were equally qualified but differed on parental status. The results strongly support the discrimination hypotheses. Relative to other kinds of applicants, mothers were rated as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hire, promotion, and management training, and deserving of lower salaries. Mothers were also held to higher performance and punctuality standards. Men were not penalized for being a parent, and in fact, appeared to benefit from having children on some measures. We discuss the implications of these findings for the theory presented and for enduring patterns of gender inequality in paid work.

The researchers created a bunch of similar resumes for high-paying management jobs with the only differences being in parental status. They signaled the parental status by listing PTA membership in the resume and names of kids along with marital status in the cover letter. I think all applicants, whether they had kids or not, were married.

The results of a review of these job applications is shown in the table2 below:

Female Applicants Male Applicants
Mothers Non-mothers Fathers Non-fathers
Competence 5.19 5.75 5.51 5.44
Commitment 67.0 79.2 78.5 74.2
Days allowed late 3.16 3.73 3.69 3.16
Percent score required on exam 72.4 67.9 67.3 67.1
Salary recommended 137,000 148,000 150,000 144,000
Proportion recommend for management 0.691 0.862 0.936 0.851
Likelihood of promotion 2.74 3.42 3.30 3.11
Proportion recommend for hire 0.468 0.840 0.734 0.617

It looks from the table that the reviewers rated the mothers less competent, less committed to their careers, proposed lower starting salaries for them and recommended them less for initial hire or promotion. The hierarchy among these four categories seems to be:

  1. Female non-parents
  2. Male parents
  3. Male non-parents
  4. Female parents

The difference among men was much smaller though than among women. Again, I recall some anecdotal information similar to this hierarchy. For example, it is considered cute and good when a guy has a picture of his kid as his desktop background during a job interview but the same thing from a woman can cause some doubt as to her commitment to work.

1 This is a working paper presented in a workshop. So apparently work still needs to be done to make it publishable in a journal.

2 The table and other quotes from the paper belong to the authors, Shelley Correll and Steven Benard and whoever holds the copyright. I have edited the presentation of the table and removed standard deviations since it cluttered the table. You can look them up in the paper along with a discussion of whether these differences were statistically significant.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

2 thoughts on “Motherhood and Careers”

  1. I consider a mother who places her children before her career an asset. Such behavior demonstrates the ability to set clear priorities.

  2. Captain Arrrgh: I would extend your statement to parents. But the problem is that social attitudes are stuck in a place where mothers are not considered career workers.

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