Workplace Gender Biases Differ Depending On Whether You Have Kids

TUCSON, Ariz. — Men and women face different biases in the workplace if they’re parents, previous research has shown, with fathers receiving more preferential treatment while mothers are viewed more negatively. Now a new study finds that those biases are especially influenced by marital status — but present different outcomes — particularly when a parent is single.

Past studies have found that women suffer a net wage penalty of 5 to 7 percent per child, and they are viewed as less competent and committed by colleagues after having children. Fathers, on the other hand, are actually subject to pay raises, and are generally viewed in a more positive light by co-workers.

But those studies hadn’t taken marital status or single-parent situations into account. So researchers from the University of Arizona examined how biases towards parents change when peers consider marital status.

For the study, the research team had 160 college students review fictitious job applications, resumes, and notes from interviewers for a group of comparable candidates seeking a senior-level role at a communications company. Included in the data were candidates’ gender, marital status, and parental status. Study participants were then asked to evaluate each candidate based on the information they reviewed for each.

Interestingly, while the participants confirmed the existence of the “fatherhood premium” or “motherhood penalty” from the earlier research, they discovered those biases disappear for single parents.

“The penalty does not apply for single mothers the way it applies for married mothers,” explains co-author and sociology student Jurgita Abromaviciute in a university release. She says that single moms take on the role of breadwinner because they’re forced to provide for their children in addition to taking care of them — without the help of anyone else.

“My research shows that single mothers are not perceived as less competent or less committed than single childless women, and they are not less likely to be hired or promoted compared to their childless counterparts,” she says. “In other words, while the motherhood penalty holds for married mothers, it disappears in the subsample of single mothers.”

While single moms aren’t subject to the kind of biased behavior that married moms, single dads lose that so-called “premium” mentioned earlier that married dads may find by colleagues and higher-ups. That’s because without another partner in the home to take on a caregiving role, single dads may be seen as more preoccupied.

“Single fathers, in addition to being breadwinners, are caregivers to their offspring,” says Abromaviciute. “Likely, this triggers an assumption that they are more focused on their family than a married father might be, which eliminates the fatherhood premium.”

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The findings show that one’s marital status plays a significant role with gender and parenthood status when judgments are being made about workers. Abromaviciute plans to continue her research using more diverse set of participants.

“One caveat I’m making is that the single parents in this study were presented as driven, ambitious and accomplished,” she adds. “Also, this was an upper management position. In real-world situations, single mothers often face structural challenges — lack of social support, lack of education, lack of valuable and relevant workplace experience, as well as limited time for hobbies and interests presented on resumes used in the study. So, these findings likely apply for middle-class applicants and employees. We don’t know what happens in working-class jobs.”

This study was presented August 13, 2018 at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.