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Returning to Workforce, Women Should Explain Employment Gap

In a first-of-its-kind study, two economists from Vanderbilt Law School have found that a female applicant returning to the workforce can significantly raise her chances of getting hired if she offers personal information that clarifies any gaps in her work history.

“Our study provides the first-ever evidence that women who conceal personal information dramatically lower their hiring prospects,” said Dr. Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt Law School.

The findings contradict long-held conventional wisdom that if a woman wants equal footing professionally, she must withhold any personal or family-related information, even if it explains why she has employment gaps.

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” concept is so strong, in fact, that many people — both employers and employees — think it is illegal, or at least inappropriate, to ask an applicant about children or marital status. But in reality, this concept is simply a suggestion by the the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — not a law, explain the researchers.

For the study, the researchers asked 3,022 participants to act as “potential employers” and to choose between two job candidates, described as mostly similar except for their openness about a 10-year gap in their job histories.

The “open” applicants used excuses such as they had been taking time off work to raise children or they’d just had a recent divorce and now need to return to work. No information was given in the other scenarios.

The statistics were striking.

“Employers overwhelmingly preferred to hire candidates who provided information to explain a resume gap, regardless of content. Any information that could flesh out a woman’s job history and qualifications improved employment prospects relative to no explanation for an otherwise identical job candidate,” added Vanderbilt co-author Jennifer Bennett Shinall.

In fact, women who gave personal information raised their chance of being hired by 30 to 40 percentage points, compared to comparable female candidates who provided no personal information.

“I was shocked by the results,” said Hersch. “The personal information gave no indication whether the woman would be a more or less productive employee. This was entirely neutral information. Yet the number of people who preferred the woman who explained her resume gap was staggering.”

The findings are consistent with the behavioral economics theory of ambiguity aversion.

“Individuals prefer known risks over unknown risks,” said Hersch. “It boils down to any explanation for your exit and your re-entering the workforce is better than no explanation,” added Shinall.

Regarding the EEOC guideline that discourages employers from asking about family matters, it is a suggestion that was taken seriously — but not a law. Specifically, it’s a recommendation aligned with the goal of encouraging compliance with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and improving workplace equity, explain the researchers.

But the new findings show that workplace information restrictions may now serve to stifle workplace equity.

“The beauty of our results is that we don’t need to change the law to implement our proposal,” Hersch said. “The EEOC gives advice and guidance, but it’s not the law.”

Guidelines, unlike laws, are easily adapted.

The researchers suggest that the EEOC shift from the existing mantra of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the reasonable accommodation model already recommended for disabled employees.

“The idea behind reasonable accommodation is that there’s an interactive process where the employer and employee have an honest conversation about each side’s needs and wants,” said Hersch.

“This would prevent women from being fearful about giving information or asking for work/life balance modifications such as telecommuting or alternate work schedules.”

The researchers suggest that this honest conversation happen during the interview process.

“If we start to encourage these types of conversations between employers and employees on an official level, it could lead to meaningful change in the quality of applicants, particularly in industries that have been so resistant to providing family-friendly work policies,” added Shinall.

The researchers believe changing the mindset behind communicating about personal issues would ultimately lead to more qualified candidates.

“We have a significant number of highly educated, highly qualified women who take a few years off to raise children, and want to come back into the labor market. And the fact of the matter is they seem to be getting bad advice from recruiters and career websites urging them to pretend their private lives don’t exist. And the EEOC guidance is not helping their transition back into the economy to take these high power jobs,” said Shinall.

The paper is published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

Source: Vanderbilt University

Returning to Workforce, Women Should Explain Employment Gap

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Returning to Workforce, Women Should Explain Employment Gap. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 22 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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