Stay-at-Home Moms Are Half as Likely to Get a Job Interview as Moms Who Got Laid Off

February 22, 2018 Kate Weisshaar

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Reentering the workforce after taking a leave of absence can be difficult, but is it harder for workers who lost their jobs and have been unemployed or workers who took time away to care for children? My research shows it’s the latter who have it worse.

In a recent research study, I found that many employers are biased against job applicants who have temporarily stayed at home with their children, even preferring laid-off applicants who have been out of work for the same amount of time.

This study builds on existing research into the challenges unemployed job applicants experience when trying to find new jobs. While researchers have studied why parents might decide to leave work and stay at home with their children, previous research did not have a clear understanding of what happens to these parents when they decide to return to work.

In the study, I sent fictitious résumés to real job openings. I developed a set of résumés to represent three types of job applicants: currently employed applicants with no employment gaps, unemployed applicants, and stay-at-home parent applicants. Male or female names made the applicants appear to be either men or women. The application materials implied that all fictitious applicants were parents and all applicants had the same level of experience, number of jobs, and skills. Those who had employment gaps had been out of the workforce for 18 months.

In the span of several months from 2015 to 2016, I sent a total of 3,374 résumés to job listings in 50 U.S. cities for accountants, financial analysts, software engineers, HR managers, and marketing directors. I then tracked which applicants received requests for interviews or for more information (a “callback”).

The results show just how heavily parents reentering the workforce are penalized for their career gap: 15.3% of the employed mothers, 9.7% of the unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers received a callback.

The results were similar for fathers. While 14.6% of the employed fathers and 8.8% of unemployed fathers received a callback, only 5.4% of stay-at-home fathers did.

Put simply, stay-at-home parents were about half as likely to get a callback as unemployed parents and only one-third as likely as employed parents.

Why are employers less likely to want to interview stay-at-home parents? I examined attitudes about these types of job applicants by asking survey respondents to read two fictitious résumés and to evaluate the job applicants based on how capable, committed, reliable, and deserving of a job they believed the applicants to be. In a similar manner to the audit study, the résumés were experimentally manipulated such that the only difference between the unemployed applicant’s résumé and the stay-at-home parent’s résumé was the reason given for the employment gap.

In this survey experiment, I found that people viewed both unemployed applicants and stay-at-home applicants as less capable than continuously employed applicants, perhaps thinking their skills had become rustier while they were not working.

Respondents viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job, and — the biggest penalty — less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants. Interestingly, while I found very few gender differences in the audit study callback rates, in the survey experiment I found that stay-at-home fathers are perceived as even less committed and reliable than stay-at-home mothers. This could be because fathers face expectations to provide for their families and respondents viewed stay-at-home fathers negatively for not adhering to these expectations.

These findings suggest that employers are concerned about stay-at-home parents’ prioritizing family over work. Employers may worry that such an applicant will decide to leave work again or that they will face difficulties transitioning back to work. These concerns might be triggered because stay-at-home parents violate ubiquitous expectations that employees should dedicate themselves completely to work and prioritize it over other areas of life — what sociologists call ideal worker norms.

These ideal worker norms can be problematic for parents who want to work. Inflexible workplaces and demanding work cultures that promote long hours and being always on can contribute to parents leaving work in the first place. My study shows that these same norms are invoked when employers evaluate stay-at-home parents’ job applicants. In other words, these norms produce a reinforcing cycle: They push some parents out of work and then keep stay-at-home parents from regaining work. Until we reevaluate the norms and expectations applied to employees, it is likely that parents who choose to stay home will continue to face limits to their careers.


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