Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Moms and Momness I

by Tom Bozzo

Probably due to its outside origin, the Wisconsin State Journal story I mentioned yesterday, headlined "Moms are advised to leave their momness at home," doesn't look like its coming back.

The original research is the Journal of Social Issues paper, "Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace: How Gender and Parental Status Influence Judgments of Job-Related Competence" (abstract).

Here is most of the abstract:
We investigated the influence of gender and parental status on employment decisions. The shifting standards model predicts that parenthood polarizes judgments of women and men such that mothers are held to stricter employment standards than fathers. Social role theory predicts that parenting role, rather than gender, guides judgments of mothers and fathers. One hundred ninety-six undergraduates at two universities evaluated a job applicant; the applicant was either male or female and was either single or married with two children. Results showed that parents were judged less agentic and less committed to employment than non-parents. Parental status also interacted with gender, indicating that fathers were held to more lenient standards than mothers and childless men. [Emphasis added.]


1. Like a widely-discussed study of the effects of televised sex on teenagers (my take), the conclusions by and large are not radical and thus don't necessarily require extraordinary evidence.

2. Still, using a survey of undergraduates to investigate "employment decisions" gives me little prior confidence that the study is even measuring what it purports to measure because:

2a. Undergraduates, as I observed on a late drive back from the airport Friday night, will hop bars without coats or hats on sub-zero nights, so what do they know?

2b. Undergraduates specifically are not likely to have well-informed beliefs about the natures of the workplace or of parenthood.

2c. In possible defense of the study, the Mercury News article suggests that the authors were after "latent attitudes." In that regard, sure, undergrads will probably tend to respond with such stereotypes as they've absorbed.

3. The workplace rights posters in the lunchroom at the office indicate that some of the attitudes measured, translated in to hiring decisions, could constitute illegal employment discrimination, though IANAL. This is not to say that it doesn't happen, of course, but a well-functioning HR department should mitigate the effects on hiring decisions.

4. My direct experience of whether it's customary to ask marital or parental status in job applications is limited, but what I have suggests it isn't. The workplace rights posters suggest it may be illegal to do so in Wisconsin.

5. I would expect that it is easier for latent attitudes to affect promotions in the real world — a study result reported in the Mercury News but not discussed in the abstract. Among other mechanisms, the lower signal-to-noise due to subjective parts of the evaluation process may give the underlying discriminatory tendencies some legal cover.

6. It looks like a "Fun With Surveys" item that parents in general are considered "less agentic" than non-parents, yet fathers are reportedly viewed more leniently than childless men.

7. If there's any content to the marginal productivity theory of compensation, parents are probably not actually "less agentic" than non-parents. This may, of course, be a confounding effect of work experience.
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