Mothers Being Penalized in Terms of Hiring, Pay

Why women with kids are having a harder time finding work.

September 18, 2012

In a bad economy, moms definitely cannot have it all. Along with juggling work and family, facing lower wages and hitting glass ceilings, they also have a much harder time finding good jobs after getting laid off than their spouses.

According to an American Sociological Association survey of laid-off U.S. workers in 2010, married moms spent more time between jobs and were overall less likely to find new jobs compared with married dads. And once re-employed, married moms experienced a decrease in earnings of $175 more per week compared with married dads.

For full-time, year-round employment that translates to a decrease of about $9,100 per year, says Brian Serafini, a University of Washington sociology graduate student and co-author of the report. The study didn't definitively say why this is happening, but Serafini believes employers are making judgments about the productivity of workers based on stereotypes.

"It is more evidence of the motherhood penalty and the daddy bonus," he says. In other words, fathers are seen as breadwinners and thus rewarded for their parental status, while mothers are viewed as being uncommitted to their careers. "Employers assume women will be less productive, have less energy, and that their work will be interrupted by their kids," Serafini says. These biases cause hiring managers to eliminate their résumés, often before they ever get their foot in the door.

This is especially troubling as many families today rely on women's income to survive. In more than half (53 percent) of households today, women are the primary breadwinner, according to Prudential's annual study, Financial Experience and Behaviors Among Women. In 40 percent of households they are sole income provider. When biases keep them out of the workforce, it has a serious impact on their viability.

And even as the country rebounds from the recession, women are still having a harder time landing jobs than their male counterparts. And it's not because they are not interested in finding full-time, meaningful jobs, says Lauren Leader-Chivee, a partner at the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based advocacy group formerly known as the Center for Work-Life Policy. "Women need work, they want work, and they recognize that they have to make a serious commitment to their employers when they get work," Leader-Chivee says. Yet she continuously encounters senior managers who believe that women don't want full-time jobs.

These biases have been around for a long time, and they have only gotten worse with the poor economy. "In tough economic times, we gravitate to folks who are similar to us," Leader-Chivee says. "Since leadership is dominated by men, then it's not surprising that they gravitate to other men."

In most companies the C-suite understands the value of diversity, but they haven't figured out how to break down the disruptive patterns of behavior that prevent women from being hired and promoted, Leader-Chivee says.

To overcome these barriers, companies need to make diversity a measurable organizational priority. Managers should be held accountable for creating diversity on their teams, recruiters should be required to provide a diverse candidate pool, and senior leadership should make a point of promoting high potential diverse individuals, she says.

And once those priorities are set, senior leadership had to hold everyone accountable for achieving them, Serafini adds. "Otherwise, you keep rewarding people who don't follow policy, and nothing will ever change."

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email