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Rosalind C. Barnett Headshot

Our Gift on Mothers Day: Discrimination and Low Pay

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Mother's Day was instituted to celebrate and revere American moms. But beneath the elaborate bouquets and fancy cards lies a dark secret. For women who are working moms, our gift is discrimination, low pay and low regard.

Imagine a woman who is smart, ambitious, organized, a good leader and a fine communicator. Now imagine that this woman has a child. Would you assume that she has suddenly become disorganized, unable to cope, a terrible manager and an unambitious slug to boot?

Of course not.

Employers, however, often do make such assumptions. Doubts are raised about her commitment and her drive. Will she be willing to take challenging assignments? Travel? Meet tight deadlines? Be innovative? Focus on her work?

Now imagine that you are such a woman, a mother who has been away from the workforce for a time. You are looking for a job and you send out a resume to a group of prospective employers.

A childless woman with a very similar resume takes the same action -- as does a man, also with a resume much like yours.

What happens?

The childless woman gets twice as many callbacks as you do. For the people doing the hiring, motherhood was the kiss of death. You could barely get a foot in the door.

What about the man? Being a parent had scant impact on him. Fathers and non-fathers
were equally likely to be called back.

This scenario actually happened, In 2010, Cornell sociologists Shelley Correll, Stephen
Benard, and Ian Paik responded to actual job ads in newspapers, using résumés and cover
letters that were identical except for first names and clues as to parental status. Applications were sent to 600 employers; the team tracked how many "applicants" were called back for interviews, with the results cited above.

In other studies, the researchers found that :

• Both males and females rated mothers as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hire, promotion and management training, and deserving of lower salaries ($11,000 less) than females who were not mothers and males, regardless of parental status.

• In sharp contrast, men benefited from, being a parent. Compared with fathers, mothers were offered approximately 8.6 percent lower salaries. And fathers were 1.83 times more likely to be
recommended for management than childless men.

Why do men get this bonus? Because married men and fathers are seen as being highly productive, motivated and committed, whereas married women and mothers are seen as conflicted, divided in their loyalties and unable to perform at a high level.

And working mothers also have to contend with their coworkers, who may see them as
"bad mommies." A 2012 study finds that these problems are especially severe in male-dominated occupations. Coworkers question both their competence on the job and their competence as parents. Such judgments are a major source of stress.

Cultural beliefs about motherhood may explain such attitudes: mothers, we too often believe, should be all-sacrificing and not have any ambitions in the first place, employers do, in fact, accept stereotypes about mothers and discriminate against them in a range of settings.

* * *

MANY people applauded the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act, (FMLA), requiring that any company with 50 or more employees provide 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave for their workers. So, a new mother on maternity leave knows that she can have her old job or one equivalent to it when she returns to work.

But the bad news is that there are major hidden costs for employees who take a leave of absence for illness or family responsibilities. Such leaves are associated with significantly fewer subsequent promotions and smaller salary increases for both men and women managers. This is true whether the leave is long or short.

But these costs are borne much more heavily by women, who are far likelier than men to be leave-takers, say researchers Michael Judiesch and Karen Lyness, both of Baruch College, the City University of New York.

They looked at a whole range of possible reasons to explain these results. Only one explanation worked: Managers who took any kind of leave were regarded as less than fully committed to their work. Any leave -- even a brief leave to travel for a family funeral -- seems to raise serious doubts about a manager's loyalty and commitment.

All managers, male and female, who deviate from "masculine norms" are punished. The corporate ethos resembles that of an NFL football team -- you "play hurt." Even taking sick leave may be seen as a violation of the rules.

Of the managers who took a leave of absence over a two-year period, 89 percent were women. So the drawbacks associated with leaves applied primarily to females. Women need to be aware that taking a leave of absence is likely to mean lower chances of promotion and smaller salary increases in the future.

One of the worries about leaves in the U.S. is that they would be enormously expensive. Thanks to California, we now know that these claims have no merit. In 2004, California was the first state to implement a program (PLF) that enables most working Californians to receive up to 6 weeks of partial wage replacement placement (955 percent of their usual weekly wage, up to a maximum benefit of $987) when they need to take time off to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill family member.

An evaluation of the program in 2010 by scholars at UCLA and at the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that overall, PFL had no noticeable effect or a positive effect on productivity, on profitability, on turnover, or morale. Small businesses (firms with less than 50 and those with 50 to 99 employees) actually reported more positive outcomes than those with 100+ employees. The vast majority of employers reported cost savings via reduced turnover or reduced benefit costs.

As a society, we've taken some baby steps toward the idea that people need time to deal with family issues such as parenthood, sickness, death, life crises. But we've stopped there. What we haven't done is to see such leaves as a normal part of the lives of companies and people.

In much of Europe, the situation is quite different. The idea of leaves of absence for family issues has become so "normal" that workers rarely pay a price. Hardly anyone even thinks that such a leave would affect his or her long-term career prospects. We need to learn this lesson in the U.S. if women are ever going to have a fair shot at the jobs for which their talent and their training qualify them.

On Mother's Day, such new attitudes would beat a dozen roses hands down!

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of "The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men -- and Our Economy" (Tarcher/Penguin).