Despite recent efforts to accommodate working parents returning to the workforce, these employees still face a major uphill battle. A research study recently published in the American Sociological Review shows that employers are biased against applicants who have taken extended breaks from work to focus on child rearing. In fact, as researcher Kate Weisshaar found, these employers even favor applicants who were simply unemployed for the same amount of time.

As Weisshaar notes, we’ve already seen research about why parents leave their careers—cough, lack of flexibility—but not much investigation into what happens when they return. So Weisshaar tried an experiment. She crafted a set of résumés representing three types of job applicants: stay-at-home parent applicants, unemployed applicants, and currently-employed applicants. She used stereotypically male and female names to connote gender; she kept the fictional applicants’ level of experience, number of jobs, and set of skills constant; she made the résumés imply that all the applicants were parents; and she gave the first two groups the same amount of time of unemployment. Then, between 2015 and 2016, she sent all 3,374 résumés out to employers looking for accountants, financial analysts, software engineers, HR managers, and marketing directors in 50 U.S. cities. And she tracked the number of “callbacks” each applicant received.

The results are disheartening but, as regular WerkLife readers might attest, unsurprising. 15.3% of the employed mothers got callbacks, compared to 9.7% of the unemployed mothers and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers. That means women who pause their careers for parenthood are half as likely as laid-off mothers and less than one-third as likely as employed mothers to get a callback. And the results are similar for men: 14.6% of employed fathers got callbacks, compared to 8.8% of unemployed fathers and 5.4 percent of stay-at-home fathers.

Think You're Being Paid Less Because You Have Children? You're Right

The bad news keeps coming. Weisshaar then had survey respondents read sample résumés and answer questions about how capable, committed, reliable, and deserving of a job the applicants were. Those respondents deemed the employed applicants more capable than the other two groups, as you might expect. But the stay-at-home parents got the harshest appraisals: The respondents deemed them less reliable, less deserving of a job, and less committed to work than even their unemployed peers.

In an essay for Harvard Business Review, Weisshaar attributes these negative perceptions to the “ideal worker norms” that make employers think their employees should prioritize work above all else. But those norms produce a reinforcing cycle, she observes: “They push some parents out of work and then keep stay-at-home parents from regaining work.”

It’s bad enough that many women and men are forced to leave the workforce when they become parents due to lack of flexibility, but these same parents are struggling to regain their footing in their careers—since parenthood somehow tarnishes their viability as workers. And these biases only widen the gender pay gap, since mothers are thus forced to rejoin the workforce with salaries and positions lower than what they would have enjoyed if they had worked continuously.

So how do we fix this? At Werk, we’re focused on creating a completely new work model—one that welcomes and even embraces employees who start families, not one that punishes them, so parents aren’t forced out of the workforce in the first place. “Until we reevaluate the norms and expectations applied to employees,” Weisshaar concludes, “it is likely that parents who choose to stay home will continue to face limits to their careers.”

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