Mothers face disadvantages in getting hired, Cornell study says

Shelley Correll

Mothers looking for employment face disadvantages, including being less likely to be hired, being offered lower salaries and facing a perception that they would be less committed to a job than fathers or women without children, according to an experiment conducted by researchers at Cornell University.

"What got me interested in this topic to begin with was research done mostly by economists that showed women with children earned lower wages than women without children, even though they had similar jobs and similar backgrounds," said Shelley J. Correll, associate professor of sociology at Cornell. "This research shows that you earn less if you have one child, even less if you have two, and so on."

Correll and graduate student Stephen Benard will present their findings in a report, "Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?" on Aug. 15 at the American Sociological Association's 100th annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Suspecting that discrimination may play a factor in the lower wages of mothers, the researchers created hypothetical job seekers with resumes and other materials, and 192 Cornell undergraduates were asked to evaluate them as candidates for a position as marketing director for a start-up communications company.

"We created two applicant profiles that were functionally equivalent," Correll said. "Their resumes were very strong; they were very successful in their last jobs. In pretesting, no one preferred one applicant over the other; they were seen as equally qualified."

Next a memo was added to one of the profiles, mentioning that the applicant was a mother of two children, and her resume was modified to show that she was an officer in a parent-teacher association. The memo and resume in the second applicant's materials made no mention of children.

When asked if they would hire these applicants, participants said they would hire 84 percent of the women without children, compared with only 47 percent of the mothers. In assigning a starting salary to the applicants, given a pay range appropriate for the job, participants offered non-mothers an average of $11,000 more than mothers.

"According to our theory, women who have children are held to a harsher performance standard than women who do not. We asked how many days the applicant could be late before they would not be seen as 'management material,' and the mothers were allowed significantly fewer days than non-mothers," said Correll, whose courses include the Sociology of Gender. She also is a faculty affiliate of Cornell's Center for the Study of Inequality.

Correll and Benard also studied perceptions of fatherhood in evaluations of male job candidates. Participants were given the same information in the resumes and memos and were asked the same questions, but men's names replaced women's on the applications.

"The question is, are mothers the ones who suffer a penalty, or is it parents?" Correll said. "We found fathers are in no way disadvantaged. And, on several measures they are actually advantaged, such as being seen as more committed to their jobs than non-fathers."

Participants offered applicants who were fathers an average of $6,000 more in salary than the non-fathers, and "fathers were allowed to be late more frequently. They were actually held to a more lenient standard than the non-fathers." Correll said.

There was no difference in how men and women evaluators rated the applicants, she said.

"We're not saying employers discriminate against mothers because they don't like them; motherhood is a role held in very high esteem in our society," Correll said. What the findings do indicate, she said, is that "cultural ideas of motherhood are seen as pretty incompatible with cultural ideas of the workplace. Since fatherhood is not seen as incompatible with the workplace, employers do not hold fathers to a harsher performance standard.

"The results support the idea that mothers, but not fathers, are discriminated against in workplace-type evaluations," she said.

Correll also noted that with recent changes "over the last 10 years, particularly among Fortune 500 companies, there are now good work-family programs in place, such as paid maternity leave and flexible work arrangements. Companies know that if they want to keep good employees, they need to think about how to retain women employees as well as men.

"We expect that if a company has well-developed work-family policies and programs, those making hiring decisions for the company would be less likely to discriminate against mothers," she said.

To test this idea, Correll plans to repeat the experiment, but this time with a family-friendly model for the hiring company. "This will allow us to assess whether evaluators' responses change for job applicants with children," Correll said.

She also said the motherhood penalty study could be repeated -- and similar results expected -- with actual employers participating.

"Past research has found that undergraduates and actual managers rate job applicants very similarly. They look at the same kinds of things," Correll said. "But it is still important to replicate the study with employers."

The study was supported, in part, by Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences.

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