Unconscious Bias
Work and Organizations

Are mothers non-ideal employees?

Popular beliefs about work-family issues characterize working moms as having a divided focus on home and work - they are therefore seen as less competent, less committed, and, as a result, less worthy of employment and promotion than men or childless women.

Sociologist Julie Kmec sought to discover if working moms indeed show less “ideal” work attitudes and practices. Her research on U.S. workers found quite the contrary: women with children are, on average, more engaged at work than fathers. Likewise, she found mothers have equal levels of work commitment, intensity, and motivation than other workers. Kmec’s study busts open cultural myths about mothers’ dedication to their work and refocuses the conversation on the need to revise workplace policies that push mothers into “mommy tracks.” She contends we need to ban differential treatment along the lines of childcare responsibilities.

Are mothers secondary earners and therefore, secondary employees?

The stereotypes about working mothers often assume that mothers are simply secondary earners and have breadwinning spouses. In fact, 10 million households are headed by single mothers, while only 6 million have a breadwinning husband and a non-working wife. In the current public discourse about gender workplace inequality and wage gaps, most sides share the assumption that, because of childcare responsibilities, working mothers’ work effort, commitment, and motivation suffer. Mothers, in other words, simply can’t live up to the modern expectations of the “ideal worker”—one who is deeply committed to their work and has few distractions or conflicting commitments from home.

These stereotypes have real-world consequences for working mothers. Burgeoning research in the social sciences from the last decade has found that mothers—even those who work full-time—face significant penalties in the workforce. Research by sociologist Shelley Correll and others has shown that, compared to equally-qualified men and women without children, mothers are less likely to be interviewed, hired or promoted and they are evaluated less positively and paid less. While many people recognize these inequalities, the common response is that mothers deserve these rewards less than other workers because their family responsibilities render them less dedicated and less engaged with their work.

 Pro-work behavior and attitudes

Kmec’s research is the first study to actually investigate the pro-work behaviors of mothers, compared to fathers and non-parents of both genders. She conducted a study of more than 2,000 full-time workers using the latest National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, a nationally-representative sample of all U.S. workers. Her analysis takes many relevant factors into account that shape pro-work behaviors: workers’ occupation, education level, number of hours worked per week, number of children, and type of organization.

Kmec’s research found that mothers show the exact same level of “pro-work” behaviors as fathers and childless men and women do. In fact, mothers are actually more engaged at work and work more intensely than working fathers. In a recent presentation to the Redesigning and Redefining Work group at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Kmec highlighted the danger of the cultural biases that assume mothers are less committed to their work—biases that create real inequalities for working mothers.

Three bias-busting findings

Working mothers continue to feel the negative impact of the stereotypes about their work output and commitment. Kmec’s findings challenge three widely-held cultural biases about working mothers:

Myth 1: Mothers put in less effort at work than fathers and non-parents.

Contrary to beliefs that working mothers' efforts are split between work and home while on the job, Kmec found no difference in mothers’ reported work effort compared to that of fathers and childless workers; this was measured on a 1-10 scale, from “no thought and effort” to “very much thought and effort.” Additionally, mothers are not more likely to report their responsibilities at home reduce the effort put in at work. In fact, she notes most mothers seem to have “adapted their home demands to meet and sometimes exceed their employers’ needs, even though they spend more time doing household chores than fathers.”

Myth 2: Mothers are distracted at work, ever-consumed by thoughts of their children.

Compared to fathers, mothers are more engaged at work, and work more intensely. For example, mothers more often than fathers reported that they “get so involved in [their] work that [they] forget about everything else, even the time.” This is counter to the stereotype that working mothers constantly have “kids on the brain,” which distracts them from their work. Mothers also report that their home life “relaxes and readies them for work” at equal rates to fathers. In other words, Kmec argues, mothers perform well at work, “without, as employers fear, being mentally at home with children.”

Myth 3: Family responsibilities motivate fathers—but not mothers—to work hard.

To the contrary, mothers and fathers are equally motivated by their family responsibilities to provide financially for their households. Men and women are equally responsive to their breadwinning burden. With more than 25.2 million moms in the labor force, and 67.5% of them working full-time, Kmec's findings debunk the myth that these working mothers are not motivated to provide for their families.

However... working mothers make personal sacrifices for work and family

A puzzle arises from these findings: we know that women shoulder the majority of childrearing responsibilities, so how do they manage to keep up equal pro-work behaviors? Mothers make adjustments in two key ways: making an effort to work better and harder, and giving up leisure time.

Kmec suggest that mothers likely perceive that their employers hold them to higher standards than fathers are held to, and, fearing negative consequences for letting their family responsibilities show, mothers put in tremendous work to balance all their responsibilities. Interestingly, recent research suggests that family responsibilities may actually help women at work, giving mothers practice at workplace-relevant skills such as multi-tasking, focus, organization, and creativity.

Second, many mothers simply give up leisure time—something fathers do not do as extensively. While this trade-off allows mothers to avoid having their home demands take away from their work responsibilities, it creates another form of inequality: gender differences in how much time mothers and fathers have to care for themselves.

Confronting biased cultures in the workplace

While Kmec’s research shows that the working mother biases do not appear to be based on actual worker behavior, these biases are very real in their consequences. They impact career possibilities and payment for both mothers and for women whom employees presume will become mothers in the future. Kmec argues that the persistence of these biases requires implementing policies that directly address motherhood bias. Specifically, employers need to design policies that ban differential treatment on the bases of family responsibilities. Additionally, the cultural beliefs about the “ideal worker” that seem more in line with men’s behaviors need to be dismantled within organizations.

Kmec asks, “are motherhood penalties and fatherhood bonuses warranted?” She finds “no behavioral reasons for such treatment of mothers and fathers in the workplace. Employers are incorrect in their assumptions that mothers will put in less at work than men or be distracted by thoughts of home and children.” The first step is recognizing that the assumptions we share about “working mothers” are far removed from actual worker behavior.