Mommified: Social Science Evidence of Discrimination Against Mothers


Several weeks ago, “Equal Pay Day” rekindled discussions of pay inequality between men and women, highlighted by the release of a new study of the extent to which the pay gap reflects unlawful, gender-based discrimination.

George wrote a post on this topic for the Recruiting Blogswap, which was published by under the title “The Gender-Pay Gap: How Much Progress from Sixty Cents on the Dollar? Is Legal Reform Needed?”

Now, sex discrimination is back in the news as Mother’s Day has brought a host of articles about working mothers and the challenges they face. The complaints are many, and valid: not enough maternity leave, too difficult to transition back into the working world after staying at home with baby, etc.

Columnist Ellen Goodman’s article described mothers as “the third gender in the workplace.”

Says Goodman: although young, childless women’s earnings are on par with men’s, mothers who are equally experienced and talented are often passed over in hiring or promotions. Not only are mothers’ special skills not recognized; motherhood seems to be explicitly punished by employers.

This conclusion is supported by the findings of the 2007 study “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” (abstract only). In this study, Shelley J. Correll performed an experiment to see if there was a motherhood penalty in the job market. She and her colleagues at Cornell University created an ideal job applicant—successful track record, uninterrupted work history, fantastic resume.

They altered some of the applications with “a tip-off about mom-ness.” For example:

It described her as an officer in a parent-teacher association. And — zap — she was mommified.

Moms were seen as less competent and committed. Moms were half as likely to be hired as childless women or men with or without kids. Moms were offered $11,000 less in starting pay than non-moms. And, just for good measure, they were also judged more harshly for tardiness.

Keep in mind that this candidate had not even taken time off work to raise her children.

The Goodman article also mentions Joan C. Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law at Hastings Law School. Williams says discrimination “the discrimination against mothers is breathtakingly open. Mothers are told, ‘You belong at home with the kids, you’re fired.'”

In the stories from the center’s hotline and in the growing case law they’ve accumulated on family responsibility discrimination (“FRD”), women were overtly denied promotions for having a child, told to have an abortion to keep a job, or rejected for a new job because “it was incompatible with being a mother.” Family emergencies were often treated differently than other time-outs.

George has been skeptical of whether FRD is really anything new legally, stating it’s “either good old-fashioned disparate treatment gender discrimination or it’s perfectly lawful, provided it does not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act.” This drew some comments worth reading.

Whatever it is (attorneys have used 17 different causes of action), a growing number of parents are suing for FRD — and winning. In about half of the hundreds of cases filed, the plaintiffs win, and in those settled the average settlement is just over $100,000. Since more than 80 percent of American women have children, the issue is obviously a recurring one.

Goodman’s column doesn’t suggest “that mothers quit the PTA, hide the kids, or even sue, although the 400 percent increase in FRD suits has, um, raised some corporate consciousness. But at the very least, we have to turn the story line around.”

The WorkLife Law study reports that FRD lawsuits do seem to be slowly turning the tide, as companies begin to see that “effective handling of workers’ caregiving responsibilities is an issue of risk management.” (As some verdicts have exceeded $1,000,000, the risk is significant.)

The Center for WorkLife Law recommends companies rethink their work/family policies and programs so that they are regarded not as fringe benefits that can be withdrawn without consequences, but as tools for managing future risk.


Ellen Goodman, “A third gender in the workplace”

See Also:


Leave a Reply