February 17, 2006

Prof: Mothers Penalized

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Having a baby?

Your wages may take a beating, according to Prof. Shelley J. Correll, sociology, who spoke yesterday on the “motherhood penalty” to a mostly female audience in Myron Taylor Hall.

Employed mothers experience a five percent decrease in wages per child, said Correll, also noting that the wage gap between mothers and childless women is wider than the female-male gap.

Correll attributed these trends to a “cultural tension” between the roles of an ideal worker and an ideal mother.

“[The ideal worker is] unencumbered by demands, is always there for employers, and will sacrifice everything for work,” she said. “The ideal mother should engage in intense mothering. The children should come above everything.”

Because the two standards are irreconcilable, Correll said that working mothers often find themselves torn between their dual duties.

“The characteristics that go along with motherhood status create a stricter standard for evaluating workplace performance of women,” she said.

Employers often claim mothers are less productive than childless women, Correll noted, citing scholar Gary Becker’s argument that “mothers are less productive because the dissipated reserve of energy is spent on children.” Correll took aim at Becker’s claim, noting the inherent difficulty of measuring a qualitative variable like productivity and the preconceived notions that often make such assessments self-fulfilling prophecies.

“How can you observe the difference when you see through a bias?” Correll questioned.

She also noted that even when mothers do perform well on the job, employers are sometimes skeptical.

Correll presented research evidence to buttress her claims of discrimination. With graduate students Steve Bernard and In Paik, she conducted two extensive studies.

In one, a laboratory experiment, 200 Cornell undergraduates were presented with pairs of applicants for a given job. The pairs included two women of the same race and qualifications. The only difference: Only one of the two was a parent. Striving for accuracy, the experimenters told the volunteers that their choices would be provided to the hiring company.

The results of the experiment surprised even Correll and her team.

While 87 percent of non-mothers were recommended, only 47 percent of mothers were. Compared to non-mothers, mothers were rated less competent and committed, were allowed fewer “late days” and were expected to score higher on certification exams. They also earned lower salaries and stood less likely to be promoted than non-mothers.

The research team collected similar data for men. Volunteers were again presented with two applicants of the same race and credentials. Unlike the woman study, fathers benefited over non-fathers, receiving what Correll called “the fatherhood bonus.”

Compared to non-fathers, fathers were rated more committed, were given more late days and were paid higher salaries.

As a sidebar, the study also found that African-Americans of both sexes were offered lower salaries and were significantly less likely to be promoted than whites.

Correll acknowledged certain limitations of the study: “Undergraduates have no hiring experiences and thus have no basis on which to make decisions,” she noted.

In her second study, Correll explored how real employers respond to different types of applications. She paired equally qualified applicants, manipulating only their parental status. The goal was to determine whether mothers are less likely to receive callbacks than childless women.

Sure enough, the non-mothers were called back twice as often as mothers.

Correll took her research results as proof that mothers face significant discrimination in the workforce.

Students in attendance greeted Correll’s conclusions with interest.

Erin Jacobs grad said “the lecture brought [her] closer to what’s going on with the wage gap among workers. It made me aware of the fact that we are subconsciously aware of cultural views towards certain groups.”

Judy Rosenstein grad said she thought Correll raised disturbing questions: “The presentation identified a large problem. There is a double standard against women such that we want women in the workplace, but don’t want them to work.”

Correll’s lecture, “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty,” was part of the larger Evolving Family Seminar Series, which this spring will feature programs on marriage and interracial relationships.

Archived article by Sarah Singer
Sun Staff Writer