Research has shown that married mothers are penalized on the job, while married fathers enjoy a premium. New research looked at how single parents are affected by bias in the workplace.

By Maressa Brown
August 20, 2018
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Achieving equality in the workplace often feels like an uphill battle, especially for parents. For years, research has shown that working moms in the U.S. are penalized financially and thought of as less competent and committed. Meanwhile, studies show that when men become fathers, they may end up making more money and being perceived more favorably on the job. Research from 2014, based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1979 to 2006, found that on average, women’s earnings decreased 4 percent for each child they had, while men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children—if they lived with them. 

That caveat that men's earnings were affected positively only when they lived with their kids may have been a bit of foreshadowing for new research about single parents. Jurgita Abromaviciute, a sociology doctoral student at the University of Arizona, recently conducted an experimental study that looked at how single parents are perceived in the workplace compared to married mothers and fathers, as well as single people who don't have children.

Abromaviciute asked 160 college students to evaluate job applications from fictitious job applicants with comparable experience. All of the candidates were said to be applying for an upper management position with a communications company. The study participants were told candidates' gender, marital status, and parental status and then evaluated the applications through a series of questions. ("Single parents in this study were presented as driven, ambitious and accomplished," the researcher noted.) Abromaviciute's conclusion: Single parents aren't experiencing the motherhood penalty and fatherhood premium like married moms and dads.

"The penalty does not apply for single mothers the way it applies for married mothers. When a woman is known to be single and when she has children, then in addition to being a caregiver, she's also a breadwinner. So, in addition to caregiving, she now also has to provide for her family and she has no one to fall back on,” Abromaviciute explained in a university press release. 

When compared to single women who aren't moms, single women with kids weren't seen as less competent or less committed. And they weren't less likely to be hired or promoted compared to their childless counterparts. But they're not enjoying any kind of benefit, either—and neither are single dads, it seems.

"Single fathers, in addition to being breadwinners, are caregivers to their offspring. Likely, this triggers an assumption that they are more focused on their family than a married father might be, which eliminates the fatherhood premium,” noted Abromaviciute.

These findings are certainly eyebrow-raising—and worth delving into further. Abromaviciute explained that these current findings apply to middle-class applicants and employees, but she'd like future research to look at working-class jobs. She also noted that there are factors faced by many single moms in the real world, like a "lack of social support, lack of education, lack of valuable and relevant workplace experience, as well as limited time for hobbies and interests presented on resumes," which should be taken into consideration. 

In the meantime, we can hope that research like Abromaviciute's contributes to this ongoing conversation bout how we can move past antiquated social stereotypes and do better by working parents, period.

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