AN OVERWHELMING number of studies show that working mothers face a motherhood penalty—resulting in lower earnings and poorer evaluations from superiors—while men receive a fatherhood bonus. Stories abound of women struggling to balance motherhood and a career, while stories of men failing to balance children and a career are largely absent. A new study helps to explain why. According to research by Kate Weisshaar of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, opting out of work to care for children has negative consequences for both parents, but it is considerably worse for fathers who choose to stay at home in competitive job markets.
To analyse this effect Ms Weisshaar distributed thousands of fictitious cover letters and CVs to real job postings in 50 American cities for five different types of job. These fictional jobseekers were all parents with similar credentials. They differed only in their work history and in their gender. While some said they had jobs in the cover letter, others said they were unemployed as a result of lay-offs. The third group declared that they had been stay-at-home parents.
The study found that parents who had opted out of work to care for children were least likely to receive a call back for an interview. Whereas 15% of employed parents and 9-10% of unemployed fathers and mothers received interviews, only 5% of parents who had taken time out of the workforce to care for children were called back. The depressed responses were not simply a result of unemployment. Parents who opted out of work were about half as likely to get an interview as parents who were unemployed because of lay-offs.
According to Ms Weisshaar’s study, Americans see opting out to care for children as a sign of lower commitment to work and even flakiness. Employers are least likely to hire fathers who are caring for children when the job market is competitive. In less competitive markets, 7% of these fictitious stay-at-home dads got interviews. In more competitive ones, fathers received only one-third as many callbacks. By comparison, 5% of mothers received callbacks, and the rate was not affected by how competitive the market was.
Whereas mothers who take time off to rear offspring face difficulties when returning to work, opt-out fathers may fare worse, says Scott Behson, author of a book called “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home”. America has a workaholic culture, he says. Mothers who put their families first eschew that culture, resulting in costs to their careers. But fathers who do so are violating both the workaholic culture and traditional gender norms.
According to the Pew Research Centre, women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of American households, and 15% of mothers with children younger than 18 earn more than their husbands. In heterosexual unions, families often decide that a father should stay at home because he has been laid off from work or the mother has a higher-earning career, says Brad Harrington of the Boston College Centre for Work and Family. In 2016, 6% of fathers were stay-at-home. That number is likely to grow as women achieve higher levels of education than men, and American jobs shift away from male-dominated professions to female-dominated ones. Unless norms about who should be responsible for what change, the opt-out penalty will become a bigger problem as more fathers make the choice to stay at home. ■