Social science research suggests that in the labor market, mothers of young children are at a disadvantage. Employers seem to be less likely to hire and promote them than they are childless women and fathers. For example, in one well-known study, sociologists Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard and In Paik sent out more than 1,200 resumes to employers hiring for marketing jobs, and found that when a woman listed being an officer in an elementary school parent-teacher association, she was less likely to get a callback than when a man did, or when a woman listed being an officer in a college alumni association, leaving ambiguous whether or not she was a parent.
What is a mother of a young child to do? A new study, from psychology researchers Beatriz Aranda and Peter Glick, suggests that women can undo the “motherhood penalty” by underscoring their commitment to work over family. Aranda and Glick gave business-school students packets of information about people applying for a job in industrial engineering. All of the packets included personal statements mentioning that the applicant was married with two young children—aged 2 and 4—but some packets included a sentence about being willing to make sacrifices for work, while others talked about loving to devote time to family.
In line with earlier studies, it didn’t matter what male applicants said. Readers of the application materials gave similar hiring recommendations for family-oriented and work-oriented fathers.
Women, however, saw a double-standard. When an application from a woman mentioned she was devoted to family, the application readers were less likely to recommend her to be hired than they were a work-oriented mother. Significantly, work-oriented mothers did just as well in garnering hiring recommendations as did work-oriented fathers. That suggests employers might not care about motherhood per se—just the risk of a mother shelving her work responsibilities in order to deal with family matters. Why, then, don’t fathers face the same penalty? The researchers surmise that people assume men and women mean different things when they say they are devoted to family—that even a family-oriented man isn’t likely to be the primary caregiver.
Yet even if women are comfortable making pronouncements about how they prioritize work over family, other research suggests they should be careful about doing so. Benard, Correll and other researchers have produced evidence suggesting that people view mothers who wholeheartedly throw themselves into the world of work as less likeable and warm than men who excel professionally. The theory: women of small children can also be penalized for failing for live up to social stereotypes about how mothers are supposed to behave.
The bottom line, then, is that mothers need to tread carefully. In applying for a job, the best path might be to leave motherhood off the table—or, if it comes up, to emphasize both a love of parenting and the many structures in place (like a supportive husband) for getting extra work done when that needs to be the priority. The tact a mother of a young child takes should also depend on the job she’s applying for. Most studies of the “motherhood penalty” examine jobs in industries such as marketing and engineering, not necessarily ones where kindness and compassion are core job skills. Social scientists have yet to test how the motherhood penalty plays out, if at all, in more caregiving-oriented industries such as teaching and nursing. Finally, in both job applications and interviews, mothers should, above all else, remain authentic. Nothing raises a red flag to an employer faster than a job candidate who seems to be putting on a show. If trying to counter-act the motherhood penalty doesn’t come naturally, then a candidate might be smart to just stay focused on the job.