Discovery Files

Mother’s Day Q&A: Science to help mothers in the workforce

Implementing specific measures in the workplace can improve women’s experiences

Seventy percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the U.S. workforce. Research shows that the wage gap between mothers and women without children is even larger than the gender wage gap.

Some of this gap exists due to persistent social biases against mothers. The good news is, research has shown that when businesses implement specific interventions, workplaces improve for all women, including mothers.

In honor of Mother's Day, the National Science Foundation (NSF) spoke with Shelley Correll, professor of sociology and organizational behavior at Stanford University and director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Correll is a leading expert on gender and motherhood in the workplace and has worked with businesses to test and implement solutions to problems of gender equity. Her work has been supported by the NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE).

Q: What are some of the unique challenges mothers face in the workforce compared to women without children?

A: When women become mothers, there is a deep suspicion that they are no longer committed to their work. This creates a very powerful bias that affects mothers. We tested resumes with real employers where the only thing we changed on the resume was the gender of the name and whether a person was relocating to a new location, or whether he or she was relocating with a family. Employers were approximately 100 percent less likely to call a woman back when she was relocating with her family. This suggests that mothers face significant challenges that childless women and fathers don't face. In fact, research suggests that the "motherhood penalty" has created a larger gap between mothers and childless women than exists in general between women and men.

Q: Is it just about a perception of reduced commitment? Are there other challenges mothers face?

A: In addition to being seen as less committed, we found that mothers were also viewed as less competent at their jobs. Our research on this comes largely from lab experiments where we created biographies and resumes of mothers that were otherwise identical to those of women without children, then had participants rate them. Even though there were no differences in workplace productivity, the mothers were rated as both less committed and less competent.

Others have studied these questions outside of the laboratory in workplaces as well, with real mothers facing these challenges. For example, in her book, "What Women Want: An agenda for the Women's Movement," Stanford University Law professor Deborah Rhode reports that women attorneys returning from maternity leave often find their competence and commitment challenged. These women reported frustration with the menial work they were assigned after returning to work. This can, of course, have a long-term effect on career trajectories since more difficult and involved work is often what leads to promotions.

Q: You mentioned fathers. How do they fare in the labor market? Are they also viewed as being less committed?

A: Not at all. You might think that if this bias against mothers were at all rational then it would apply to fathers as well. That is, children take time and effort. If this time and effort has any impact on work, then you would think that fathers, who also spend time and effort with their children, would experience it as well, even if to a lesser extent. However, research suggests just the opposite. While there is a clear penalty for motherhood there is also a clear bonus for fatherhood. When men become fathers they experience increases in the perception that they are committed to and competent at their jobs.

Q: What are you doing to improve outcomes for women in the workplace?

A: We are working to implement the things that we have learned from basic laboratory research in actual workplaces. We are evaluating what we call the "small wins" model of change to reduce biases that women face. We assess the effectiveness of these interventions to produce modest gains, or small wins, in real organizations. Small wins are important because they often inspire companies to seek further improvements. In this way, small wins are the building blocks of larger change efforts. The businesses we work with are motivated to implement these changes because hiring, promoting and retaining women and mothers is good for the business's bottom line.

Q: In your work with businesses, what solutions have you found to be successful?

A: There are two main solutions that we have seen improve outcomes for women in general and may also be especially effective for mothers. Both solutions also lead to improved benefits for organizations as well.

The first set of solutions are designed to reduce the implicit or unconscious effects of stereotypes on how people in workplaces are evaluated for hire or promotion. We work with businesses to improve their evaluation processes, so that the processes have clear, measurable criteria and follow a deliberate and consistent process. When supervisors make these decisions using clear criteria and a consistent process, they rely less on subjective ideas about who they feel in their gut is going to do a good job. This decreases biases against women.

For example, we worked with one company to develop a scorecard to be used during their performance assessment processes and to create a more systematic process for evaluation. These changes eliminated a previous gap in which men were more likely to receive the top performance rating. Since the scorecard had managers evaluate employees on consistent criteria that were tied to their organizational values, they were not only being fairer, but they were also more accurately assessing employee performance relevant to the particular needs of the organization.

The second type of solution provides employees with flexibility in terms of where and when they work. Research by Erin Kelly, professor of work and organization studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Phyllis Moen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and others evaluated this type of program at a company while it transitioned from requiring employees to work in the office to a "results only work environment," or ROWE, where employees could work in the location and times of their choosing. What they found was that teams that implemented ROWE had lower levels of work-family conflict and higher levels of retention than teams who were required to work in the office. Mothers, fathers, and women and men without children all saw improvements. ROWE also led to improved health-related behaviors, such as not coming into work when sick and increased exercise frequency. Not only was this program good for mothers and women in general, it also led to improved business outcomes.

Q: Do you have any advice for a new mother about to return to the workforce? Is there anything she can do to improve her chances of not experiencing the motherhood penalty?

A: When you go back to work, it might be useful to have a very frank conversation with your supervisor to say that you are eager to be put on important projects and that you remain very committed to the work and to moving ahead. In many cases, there is no malicious intent on the part of a supervisor. Instead, a well-meaning supervisor may give you a lighter, less challenging, or less interesting workload believing it would be beneficial to someone with a baby or young child. Even if well intentioned, this type of "benevolent sexism" can limit your career advancement. If that is not what you want, you might speak to your supervisor.

Researchers like Correll are using science to make workplaces better places for mothers. On Mother's Day, it's worth learning about the many challenges mothers face -- you might find a few new reasons to be appreciative of your own mom.