Compared to other workers, mothers face significant disadvantages in the labour market when it comes to access to good jobs, wages and mobility. What explains these findings? Direct evidence of employers’ attitudes, though limited, suggests that employers tend to view mothers as less capable, competent and committed. Experimental and audit research finds that even when mothers’ competence and work commitment are highlighted, employers tend to view them as less desirable than non-mothers.
Our previous work underscores these findings. Interviews with professional employers revealed that they tended to view mothers as costly and inefficient workers. These views resulted in ongoing efforts to shed, demote and otherwise marginalise working mothers.
While this evidence suggests that bias may limit mothers’ opportunities in organisations, less is known about whether or how employers differ in their attitudes toward mothers. Our latest research seeks to uncover whether job characteristics shape how employers view mothers as workers. Are some jobs better than others when it comes to employers’ views of mothers’ capabilities?
Centring on employers’ attitudes is important because not only do employers serve as influential gatekeepers but their perceptions are shaped by larger sector-level norms and expectations. Their views reveal important nuances about the ways in which job context shapes attitudes and, by extension, recruitment, hiring and promotion practices.
In-depth interviews with 51 employers in Hungary’s multinational finance and business services sectors reveal important sources of variation in employers’ attitudes toward working mothers.
We find that employers’ views of mothers are shaped by two factors: (1) a job’s skill profile, meaning what range of skills are deemed most valuable; and (2) a job’s knowledge/skill dynamism, meaning the extent to which they view the requisite skill set as stable or ever-changing.
First, employers’ view of the job’s skill profile shaped the extent to which they viewed mothers as competitive. While employers in both sectors viewed soft skills as crucial, which soft skills they prioritised varied. Finance employers viewed soft skills like commitment, confidence and assertiveness as most important for success; they also placed high value on long work hours and 24-hour availability. By contrast, employers in business services were more likely to privilege interpersonal, teamwork and communication skills.
Because the soft skills valued in finance are more consistent with “ideal worker” norms — such as long hours, constant availability and unlimited dedication to work — it’s not surprising that finance employers screened mothers out of the hiring process. Employers in business services, however, sought to hire and retain working mothers and were eager to signal their commitment to family-friendly practices.
The second factor that shaped employers’ view of working mothers was their perception of a job’s knowledge/skill dynamism. Employers in finance believed that the requisite skill/knowledge base was ever-changing and required constant learning and adaptation by workers. For them, any work interruption —including parental leave — led to skill deterioration.
By contrast, employers in business services saw the requisite knowledge/skill base as relatively stable. They made significant investments in retaining highly skilled workers, including mothers. Even when workers took parental leave, employers remained invested in supporting their return to work.
While employers in both sectors understood the need to “manage motherhood,” the focus of these efforts varied. Finance employers screened mothers out of the recruitment and hiring process, limited their promotion opportunities and downgraded them upon their return from leave.
Business services employers invested in retention and accommodation efforts including flexible and home-based work and subsidised childcare. Their priority was recruiting and retaining talented workers, irrespective of parental status.
These attitudes have important implications. Though women represent about half of new hires in finance, they comprise fewer than 10 per cent of leaders in the industry. Business services employers sought to accommodate parents on leave and facilitated their return through network and social events. In one business services firm that was typical among our sample, over 60 workers were currently on leave. When asked how many would return to their previous jobs, the senior hiring manager said, simply, “all of them”.
Our findings have important implications for workplace policy and practice.
Research on pro-work behaviours reveals that when it comes to work effort, work intensity and job engagement, mothers are similar to or better than other workers. This means that when employers screen mothers out, they lose an important source of productivity and talent.
Our research suggests that this talent drain isn’t inevitable, and suggests ways employers can avoid it:
First, employers can rethink the way they service clients. In business services, employers place a significant emphasis on cooperation and teamwork. Corporate clients often work closely with a team rather than an individual, building relationships over time with multiple workers. This means that leave is less disruptive to client relationships, and mothers are easily re-integrated after leave.
Second, employers can rethink the meaning of leave. Because they equated career disruptions with skill depreciation, finance employers viewed parental leave as disadvantageous. However, business services employers view worker training as a long-term investment. While parents are on leave, they provide continuing education opportunities as well as re-training programs upon their return. These efforts make sure that workers’ return to their previous jobs is seamless and limits bias against returning mothers.
Finally, employers can rethink leadership training. Because many of the requisite skills in finance are also skills traditionally associated with men and leadership (ie, the “think manager-think male” phenomenon), employers’ justification for excluding mothers’ also serves to limit their access to workplace authority. But this isn’t an inherent aspect of highly skilled professional work, as the case of business services shows. Employers’ desire to limit a talent drain in that sector leads to investments in flexible work arrangements and retention that support women’s mobility over time. As a result, women are better represented at all levels of the organisation in that sector.
Professional employers seeking to recruit, retain and promote the best workers should rethink job design in ways that support the retention and advancement of all workers.
Also by Christy Glass:
- This blog post is based on the authors’ paper Managing Motherhood: Job Context and Employer Bias, in Work and Occupations, Vol 45, Issue 2, 2018.
- The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image credit: Photo by 5540867, under a CC0 licence
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Christy Glass is professor of sociology at Utah State University. Her research focuses on recruitment, hiring and promotion practices and their impact on women and racial/ethnic minorities.
Éva Fodor is associate professor of gender studies and pro-rector for social sciences and humanities at Central European University.