Study: Moms Hit by Hiring 'Motherhood Penalty'

August 5, 2005 ( - Women with children suffer when competing for jobs against similarly qualified fathers and childless men and women, according to a pair of Cornell University sociologists.

Sociologists Shelley Correll and Stephen Benard found that fatherhood helped job candidates while motherhood hurt them, according to a report.

Correll and Benard said they interpreted the results as showing that a “motherhood penalty” exists in hiring. “To the extent that employers view mothers as less committed to their jobs and less ‘promotable,’ the glass ceiling women face could be, in part, a motherhood ceiling,” the two wrote in their paper titled, “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” The male and female applicants “who were evaluated in this experiment were exactly equal,” they said. The fact that “parental status disadvantaged only female applicants is strong evidence of discrimination.”

According to the report, the researchers set up an experiment involving an opening for an executive-level marketing job at a fictitious communications startup. They created resumes and human-resource department memos for “candidates.” The resumes contained effectively identical qualifications.

Correll and Benard then added features to distinguish the candidates. On some resumes, they indicated that the candidate served in a parent-teacher association. On others, they said the applicant served in a neighborhood association. The HR memos also included notations on whether a candidate was a parent or married. Correll and Benard used names to flag candidates’ gender. Some were given typically male names while others received typically female ones.

The two researchers next hired college students to act as screeners, telling them that the hiring company marketed to young people and thus wanted their input in its hiring decisions. They gave each student a pair of resumes–two women or two men; one a parent, the other not–and instructed them to rank the candidates and even propose starting salaries. They also asked them to suggest how many late arrivals at work a candidate should be allowed before being penalized.

According to the report, on every measure but one, mothers scored lower than everyone else. (On the number of late arrivals allowed, they tied with men without kids.) Mothers were ranked as less competent and committed and least likely to be promoted. They were offered lower starting salaries.

The students ranked women without children as the most qualified on several measures, giving them the highest scores for commitment, competence and likelihood of promotion, according to the report. Even so, they weren’t offered the highest starting salaries. Those went to fathers, who also were rated as most likely to be promoted.

Childless men didn’t fare as well. They beat mothers on most measures but fell behind childless women on every measure but one, the report said.