Mothers in the workplace held to stricter standards, study suggests

01/04/05

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Despite the gains women have made in the workplace, new research suggests one group of women employees still face negative stereotypes – mothers.

A laboratory study found that young adults held mothers to stricter employment standards than childless women. Fathers, on the other hand were held to more lenient standards than both women and childless men.

"Even though gender stereotypes are not as overt as they were 20 to 50 years ago, there are still ways in which they are manifested – and evaluations of mothers at work are one good example," said Kathleen Fuegen, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University's Lima campus.

In the study, the researchers found college students would be less willing to hire a woman with two children than they would be to hire a woman with identical qualifications who had no children.

Moreover, the woman with two children was judged as a lesser candidate for promotion compared to a childless woman with the same qualifications.

"People are setting higher standards for mothers than for fathers because they expect that mothers will be less committed to their jobs and will need more time off to take care of their children," Fuegen said. "Because of these expectations, people demand better qualifications from mothers.

Fuegen conducted the study with Monica Biernat of the University of Kansas, Elizabeth Haines of William Patterson University, and Kay Deaux of the City University of New York Graduate Center. Their results appear in the December 2004 Journal of Social Issues.

The study involved two groups of students: 108 from a Midwestern university and 88 from an Eastern university. The Eastern sample was slightly older, with an average age of 22, compared to 19 for the Midwestern sample.

Participants were told they would evaluate an applicant seeking an entry-level position as an immigration law attorney. All participants reviewed the same resume, except that half received a resume with a male name (Kenneth Anderson) and half received a resume with a female name (Katherine Anderson). In addition, half of the resumes identified the applicant as single and having no children, while the other half said the applicant was married and had two young children.

The participants judged the applicant on a variety of measures, including competence, perceived commitment to the job, and availability on the job. In addition, participants were asked whether they would hire the applicant and whether the applicant would make a good candidate for promotion.

In general, parents were judged as less committed to their jobs and less available at work compared to those without children, Fuegen said.

One surprising finding was that the participants actually set lower employment standards for fathers than they did for men with no children, and for mothers.

While the researchers expected the mothers to be held to stricter standards than other women – and they were – they didn't predict any differences in standards for fathers compared to childless men. Fuegen said more study needs to be done to see if this finding can be replicated.

Mothers were also judged less favorably when it came to promotion. "When the applicant was male, parental status made no difference in promotion rates. However, when the applicant was female, she was significantly less likely to be promoted when a parent then if she was not a parent," she said.

Fuegen said the study should be repeated with an older sample, who have longer employment histories, to see if the results still hold true. But she suspects the results would not change significantly. She noted that the sample of Eastern students – who were older and more likely to have work experience than the Midwestern sample – did not respond significantly differently.

The results show that gender stereotypes still exist in the workplace, Fuegen said.

"Sometimes gender stereotypes are manifested in very subtle ways," she said. "Even today, mothers are still expected to be caregivers first and fathers are still seen as the main breadwinners and this affects how mothers and fathers are viewed in the workplace."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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